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More scandals weigh down the Israeli government

Posted By Philippe Khan

In the latest corruption scandal in Israel, Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson temporarily suspended himself from office on Sunday ahead of an expected fraud indictment. 

Israeli media say enough evidence is available to indict Hirchson, a close ally of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, for embezzling money as chairman of a public-sector labor union. 

Police are also investigating whether the finance minister received free medical treatment as the chairman of a government-run health maintenance organization. It’s been reported that the prime minister pushed Hirchson to step aside temporarily. The finance minister's leave of absence will last three months, though Olmert is expected to be considering a Cabinet shake-up within this period. 

Also Sunday, Azmi Bishara, an Israeli Arab MP and head of the National Democratic Assembly (Balad), resigned from parliament at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, and said he would stay abroad for a time because of a "racist" climate. Bishara, an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, submitted his resignation weeks after leaving Israel amid a police probe into unspecified criminal allegations.

Coupled with public criticism of the government’s handling of last summer’s war against Hezbollah, the recent resignations triggered talks of new elections barely a year after the cabinet took office. Hirchson’s resignation could also spark infighting within Olmert’s party, Kadima, which, according to recent polls, would lose more than half of its 29 seats in parliament in any new election. 

"There are symptoms of a critical mass" of scandals and investigations, said Rina Matzliach, the political commentator for Israel's Channel 2 news. "It could very well be that this is creating an atmosphere in which [political parties] will reach an agreed-upon date for elections." 

The political turmoil led to media speculations that Olmert's rivals within Kadima -- such as Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni -- are discussing the need of preparing a scenario in which the prime minister would have to resign. 

Olmert is himself facing several investigations related to real estate deals in which he profited from sales prices that sharply deviated from going rates in the market. He is also facing an inquiry into charges that he changed the terms of a bank privatization plan to help one of the bidders during his term as finance minister. 

Four other members of the Israeli cabinet are facing or have faced corruption investigations, and another three coalition legislators have come under similar scrutiny.

Moreover, Israel's President Moshe Katsav is facing potential indictment on charges of sexual crimes involving four women, giving private gifts paid for out of public funds, harassing a witness and obstructing justice. 

An unidentified government minister acknowledged that Israel's leadership is "tainted by an image of ill-doing" but said that the investigations are "not connected" and proved that "everybody is subject to the rule of law."

The corruption scandals came at a sensitive time for Olmert’s cabinet, according to an article on the Washington Times. In just a few days, the Israeli government is expected to face harsh criticism from a panel commissioned by the prime minister to examine his government's performance during its month-long war against the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah last summer. 

Israel used Hezbollah’s capture of two its soldiers last July as an excuse for launching a deadly offensive in Lebanon, in which more than 1,200 mostly Lebanese civilians died. The Israeli army lost 116 soldiers, and 43 civilians who were killed by more than 4,000 Hezbollah rocket attacks. 

A UN-brokered ceasefire ended the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in August, with Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah declaring a strategic victory over Israel, whose failure to retrieve the two captured soldiers, crush Hezbollah or halt its daily cross-border rocket attacks led the Israelis to view the war as a failure. 


Whatever the findings of the government-commissioned panel are, Olmert is likely to be disparaged, analysts say. If the commission concluded that the government mishandled the conflict, more politicians will call for Olmert’s resignation. But if the panel absolved the prime minister of responsibility for the war’s failures, critics will dismiss the months-long inquiry as a whitewash. 

"The X factor is, 'What is this panel's conclusion about the management of the government last summer?' " said David Makovsky, a fellow at the U.S.-based Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "This could be the death knell of the government." 

 

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