A Political Scandal Casts a Shadow Over Israel's 60th Birthday Party

A bribery investigation threatens to bring down Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

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Israel this week celebrates its 60th birthday with military displays, barbecues and a Bible quiz but also with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's (2nd-L) political future.

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JERUSALEM—In advance of Israel's planned celebrations of its 60th birthday on Thursday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seemed about to announce a major achievement: a cease-fire with Hamas and other Gaza militant groups in Gaza, which would have halted the seven-year-long rocketing of the border town of Sderot. But at the end of last week, just as Egyptian mediators had gotten an agreement from the Gazans and were prepared to present it to the Israelis, Olmert was summoned urgently by police for questioning on what has been reported in some Israeli media as suspicions of bribery.

Since then, everything has been on hold in anticipation of state prosecutors' announcement of the nature and gravity of the investigation. If it approximates the very rough outline that has been reported despite a judicial gag order—that there is strong evidence that Olmert, before becoming prime minister, accepted bribes from a wealthy American with interests in Israel—the already widespread calls for his resignation could become overwhelming.

At this week's cabinet meeting, the premier declared his innocence, saying "the country is awash with rumors about the subject of the investigation...virtually all of which are malicious and wicked. I promise that when the issues are clarified...it will put a stop to these rumors." On Tuesday, prosecutors asked a Jerusalem court for permission to question a foreign national about the case. At a press conference afterward, State Prosecutor Moshe Lador said that "inaccurate information has been reported, and it is misleading the public."

Still, the urgency and timing of the police probe—on the eve of Independence Day events and next week's scheduled commemorative visits by President Bush, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and other world leaders—indicate that law enforcement officials are going on something more than malicious rumors. For Olmert, this latest affair adds to his already dubious reputation as a law-abiding politician; four other police investigations are pending against him for allegedly abusing his political power to enrich himself and his associates.

While his standing in public opinion has been abysmal since he failed to deliver the promised victory over Hezbollah in the summer 2006 war in Lebanon, Olmert, 62, has survived in office because a combination of political cunning and the Knesset's hesitance to call new elections, which would doubtless result in many Knesset members being voted out of their jobs. However, the prime minister has ambitious rivals for his post, including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, the clear favorite in the polls since the Lebanon war's demoralizing end.

If the suspicions against Olmert turn out to be substantive, he could be forced out by his own Kadima party and replaced by Livni, Kadima's No. 2. Or the Knesset might finally bow to public pressure and vote for new elections.

Or it could be none of the above; in his two years as premier, Olmert has defied expectations a few times by weathering political storms, most notably the wave of public contempt he faced after the war. No one is writing him off yet. By law, he would be required to leave office only if he were indicted.

Meanwhile, the rockets from the Gaza Strip continue to land on Sderot, where, even before Olmert's latest troubles began, Israelis were starting to gather for an "alternative Independence Day" to protest the government's inability to deliver security. In Gaza, Palestinians remain under Israeli fire as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Egyptian mediators wait to see if there's an Israeli partner for a cease-fire or not. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, here for yet another round of peace process bilaterals and trilaterals, brushed off a question at a press conference about the Israeli leader's legal troubles, calling them "internal matters for Israel."

Olmert has canceled the traditional prime minister's pre-Independence Day interviews with the major news media. As the country's leading newspaper columnist, Nahum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot, put it: "There are better ideas for a holiday gift than this."