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Olmert grilled again in corruption probe

Israeli police question Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for the fourth time in a corruption investigation that has brought about his political downfall.

world Updated: Aug 02, 2008 11:29 IST

Israeli police questioned Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Friday for the fourth time in a corruption investigation that has brought about his political downfall.

Friday's session was the latest round of questioning on suspicions that Olmert improperly accepted money from an American businessman. Another case involves alleged violations in funding trips abroad.

While police have not charged Olmert, public anger over allegations that he had a lavish lifestyle further damaged already dismal approval ratings. Olmert announced Wednesday that he will resign after his Kadima Party holds primaries in September to replace him.

The investigation has seriously hampered Olmert's ability to conclude peace deals with the Palestinians and Syria, although he has said he will persist in those efforts as long as he is premier. Police officers questioned Olmert at his Jerusalem residence for three hours, his spokesman, Amir Dan, said.

"The prime minister answered all of the investigators' questions," Dan said. "Of his own volition, he suggested adding an hour to the questioning. The questions were to the point." Dates will be set next week for further questioning, Dan said. The most damaging inquiry focuses on American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky, 76, who testified he gave Olmert envelopes stuffed with tens of thousands of dollars before he became prime minister, in part to finance Olmert's lifestyle of expensive hotels and fat cigars.

The latest allegation is that Olmert double and triple-billed trips abroad to Jewish institutions, pocketing the difference or financing trips for relatives. Other allegations include a shady real estate deal and questionable political appointments _ all before he became premier.

Talansky was cross-examined last month with Olmert's lawyers spending more than six hours grilling him about previous testimony and attempting to undermine his credibility.

But Talansky's lawyer, Jacques Chen, said the defense didn't even come close to eroding his client's credibility.

The opposition has called for national elections in the wake of Olmert's decision to step down. While Olmert's Kadima Party hoped to settle the leadership crisis internally in a matter of weeks, national elections has raised the prospect of a monthslong campaign that would further stall peace talks.

Three to six weeks will have been spent trying to form a government, so elections would mean Israel's political turmoil could last for six months or more, putting everything else in deep freeze. Palestinian leaders already were pessimistic about their talks, with some officials in recent months accusing Israel of undermining its public pledge to seek peace by expanding Jewish settlements on land that the Palestinians seek for their own state.