- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

JERUSALEM — Barely three days into a cease-fire with Hezbollah, domestic politics have returned to Israel with a thud as Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert fend off personal scandal accusations.

Mr. Olmert, meanwhile, is turning to religious and conservative parties in the hope of bolstering his governing coalition in the face of harsh criticism in parliament of the handling of the war.

Politicians from across the political spectrum have called for Gen. Halutz’s dismissal since a newspaper revealed that he ordered his financial adviser to sell all his stocks — worth about $27,000 — on the first day of the war.

The general denies wrongdoing but admits having ordered the sale around noon on July 12 — three hours after a Hezbollah cross-border raid in which two Israeli soldiers were snatched. Later that day, the Israeli government, acting on Gen. Halutz’s recommendation, mounted an all-out air assault on Hezbollah.

The scandal involving Mr. Olmert is more pedestrian. The state comptroller’s office has said it will summon the prime minister for questioning on suspicion of having received an exorbitant discount on the purchase of his new home in Jerusalem.

Mr. Olmert, who was mayor of Jerusalem until three years ago, is accused of having helped the contractor to gain special permits from the municipality in return.

The prime minister’s more immediate problem is to hold together his coalition in the face of repeated calls for an independent panel to investigate the management of the war. With just 67 of 120 seats in the Knesset, the coalition could be toppled by the defections of a handful of members.

“What we need — and this is really one of the most important things for Israel — is to widen the coalition,” said Avigdor Itzchaky, a Knesset member from Mr. Olmert’s Kadima party, in an interview with Israel’s public radio. “We need to bring in as many partners as possible to the coalition.”

Mr. Itzchaky said that he would put out feelers to Likud; the far-right Russian-immigrant party, Yisrael Beitenu; and the United Torah Judaism party.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz said yesterday that he would commission a panel to investigate the military, but the move was criticized as an attempt to duck an independent investigation.

If Mr. Olmert is forced to create a special panel of inquiry, he and Mr. Peretz will become the main defendants in a monthslong trial that likely will slowly erode the government’s support.

But political analyst Avraham Diskin said that if Mr. Olmert and Mr. Peretz stick together, they should easily survive.

“You’re talking about people with bloody experience in politics. They are very tough. It’s not the first earthquake which they’ve faced,” said the political science professor at Hebrew University.

“As long as they stick together, it’s almost impossible for them not to stay in power. And the wave will pass.”

Analysts say there was nothing illegal about Gen. Halutz’s move, but critics accuse him of a major breach of ethics, or at least good taste.

“There’s a serious problem with his order of priorities,” said Labor Knesset member Colette Avital.

A conservative legislator, Zevulun Orlev, said Gen. Halutz had abused the nation’s trust.

“One would expect the chief of staff to devote all his time and abilities to conducting the war,” he said.

Gen. Halutz has dismissed the criticism as “fantastic,” saying, “I am also a citizen. I also have finances. The facts are correct, but the music is false, tendentious. I do not intend to be dragged to such levels.”

Former air force colleagues have come to his defense, saying that while he may have made a mistake, Gen. Halutz — a former combat pilot who downed three enemy planes in the Yom Kippur War — is a man of integrity who does not deserve the abuse being heaped upon him.

“I’m in a spin now,” he told a reporter yesterday, “but I’ll pull out.”

Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv contributed to this article.

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