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Olmert: Police probe won’t affect peace agenda

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday said he would not let a new police investigation into his conduct prevent him from doing his job — his first public comments on an affair that has threatened to further weaken him politically.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that he would not let a new police investigation into his conduct prevent him from doing his job — his first public comments on a probe that has threatened to further weaken him politically as he tries to make peace with the Palestinians.

Olmert was questioned at his Jerusalem residence on Friday in connection with the case, whose content has been subjected to a court gag order. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's arrival in the region this weekend highlighted concerns that Olmert might be left too weak to shepherd through a peace deal that would require Israel to cede long-held land to the Palestinians.

The investigation is the fifth against Olmert since his government took office exactly two years ago, and the latest in a longer string of probes to dog him during his three decades in politics. He has not been charged in the most recent corruption investigations, and has never been convicted of any wrongdoing.

None of the cases, including the latest one, concern Olmert's activities as prime minister.

Olmert pledges to continue
Still, the corruption probes have hurt his standing, which also has been battered by the inconclusive 2006 war in Lebanon, and ongoing Palestinian rocket and mortar fire at Israel from the Gaza Strip.

Speaking at the weekly meeting of his Cabinet, Olmert said the latest investigation has unleashed "a wave of rumors," most of them "malicious and wicked."

When the facts become clear, he said, they will lay the rumors to rest, he insisted. In the meantime, "I have an agenda as the prime minister of Israel," he said. "I intend to continue with this agenda and continue my job."

The affair touched off a media tempest, with newspaper front pages and radio stations focusing almost exclusively on Olmert's new predicament. Political opponents quickly predicted that Olmert's days at Israel's helm were numbered.

"Deep in the mud," blared the headline on the front page of Israel Hayom, a daily highly critical of the prime minister.

Against the background of this latest investigation, the prime minister canceled traditional Independence Day interviews with Israeli media. His office confirmed the cancellations, citing the gag order on the investigation. Israel's 60th Independence Day begins Wednesday night.

Peace talks with Palestinians
Topping Olmert's agenda is peacemaking with the Palestinians. The two sides relaunched negotiations after a seven-year break in November. They set a target of reaching a deal by the end of the year, though both have suggested that goal might be unrealistic.

Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are to hold their next meeting on Monday, Olmert said, confirming an earlier Palestinian report.

Separately, one of the parties in Olmert's coalition has split, but the new party's members said Sunday they might still back the government.

Three members of parliament from the Gil pensioners party said Sunday they are joining Russian-Israeli tycoon Arkady Gaydamak to form the Justice for Pensioners Party. The Gil party surprised the Israeli public by winning seven seats in the last election but has been plagued by infighting in recent months.

Moshe Sharoni, the leader of the rebels, and Gaydamak said their new party might support Olmert if he promises more benefits to retired Israelis.