Israel's defense minister on Wednesday issued a tough ultimatum to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, saying he would use his considerable power to topple the coalition government if the Israeli leader does not step aside to face corruption allegations.
The comments by Ehud Barak increased the growing pressure on Olmert to resign in the wake of a U.S. businessman's court testimony that painted Olmert as a money-hungry politician with a love for luxury. It also cast doubt on Israel's efforts to reach peace with Syria and the Palestinians.
Olmert has denied any wrongdoing and said he would resign only if he is indicted.
At a news conference, Barak said that in light of the criminal investigation, he did not think Olmert could focus on peace efforts and the country's pressing security needs.
"I don't think the prime minister can at the same time lead the government and handle his own affairs. Therefore, acting out of concern for the good of the country, and for fitting norms, I believe the prime minister must disconnect himself from the day-to-day running of the government," he said.
He said Olmert could suspend himself, resign or even go on vacation, and promised to continue to cooperate with a new leader from Olmert's Kadima Party.
"If Kadima doesn't act and this parliament doesn't see another government that is to our liking, we will act to set an agreed-upon date for early elections," he said. He said the date would be "soon."
Difficult to stay in power
Although Barak stopped short of setting a firm deadline, his comments made it extremely difficult for Olmert to stay in power. If Labor withdraws from the coalition, Olmert would lose his parliamentary majority and the country would be forced to hold new elections.
Israel's popular foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, would automatically become caretaker prime minister if Olmert stepped down. The party could then try to form a new government, and if that effort failed elections would likely ensue.
Livni and other Kadima leaders have remained silent since Tuesday's damaging court testimony. But Israeli media reported that several ministers were already positioning themselves to replace Olmert.
Israeli prosecutors are investigating tens of thousands of dollars in donations collected by Olmert before becoming prime minister in 2006. They suspect he may have violated campaign finance laws or accepted bribes.
On Tuesday, the key witness in the case, U.S. businessman Morris Talansky, testified that he personally gave Olmert $150,000 (euro95,000) over 15 years, often in cash-stuffed envelopes.
Talansky also discussed Olmert's love for luxury hotels, first-class travel and expensive gifts. Olmert's lawyers are scheduled to cross-examine Talansky on July 17.
There was no immediate reaction from Olmert. But earlier Wednesday, Olmert aide Tal Zilberstein said the prime minister "doesn't have any intention to resign or to step down temporarily, even if Barak asks him to."
Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said the prime minister was continuing his daily schedule. "It's business as usual," Regev said.
Nahum Barnea, a respected analyst with the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, said the moral implications were much greater than any legal ones at this point.
"What is to blame is the ease with which public figures live beyond their means, the intolerable ease of the sponging, the parasitism, the illusion of 'I deserve it,'" Barnea wrote in the mass-circulation daily.
Israeli dailies were plastered with quotes from Talansky's testimony and headlines blasting Olmert. "Disgusting," read one on Yediot's front page.
Talansky said he did not get anything in return for the money, though he said Olmert made a failed attempt at his own initiative to get three businesspeople to work with a company owned by Talansky.
The 75-year-old New Yorker said he overlooked questions about Olmert's request for cash due to his belief in Olmert's ability to unite the Jewish people.
Talansky said he gave Olmert money beginning in 1991. Olmert became Jerusalem mayor in 1993, serving for a decade at the end of which he was named ministry of industry and trade.
Talansky's testimony is the latest blow to Olmert, who has been deeply unpopular since Israel's inconclusive war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon in 2006.
Olmert has set a year-end target for reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians. Last week, he also announced the resumption of peace talks with Syria after an eight-year break. Now, both peace efforts are in jeopardy.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat dismissed the crisis as an "internal Israeli matter" and said the Palestinians "hope this will not impact the ongoing negotiations."