- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 17, 2007

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faced a tightening political vice yesterday, a day after the twin announcements of a criminal investigation against him and the surprise resignation of the army chief of staff.

Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz’s acceptance of responsibility for the military’s failure to defeat Hezbollah during last summer’s Lebanon war marks the first time an Israeli army chief has been forced aside since the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and underlines the lingering turmoil in the Israeli defense establishment.

The decision, which Israeli newspapers described as a political “earthquake,” reignited calls by parliament members for Mr. Olmert’s resignation and spurred speculation about early parliamentary elections. Mr. Olmert’s weak public standing is likely to render him a de facto lame-duck leader, even as the United States tries to renew momentum for peace talks with Palestinians.

Although the opposition Likud Party tabled a no-confidence motion after the resignation, a parliament member from the governing coalition suggested that Mr. Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz follow the example set by Gen. Halutz.

“The failure of the Lebanon war can’t stop at the military echelon,” said parliament member Zahava Galon from the left-wing Meretz-Yachad party. “The political echelon, which made the irresponsible decision in the first place to go to war, must go home.”

A military panel that reviewed the Israel Defense Forces’ performance during the war found a lack of leadership and preparedness. A commission of inquiry appointed by the prime minister has been hearing testimony for months and is expected to issue preliminary findings by March. Those conclusions could prove to be the next vulnerable point in Mr. Olmert’s tenure.

In addition, Mr. Olmert is bracing for a criminal investigation on suspicions that as finance minister last year he tinkered with a privatization tender for Bank Leumi Ltd. to benefit a businessman bidding on the company.

Israel’s state attorney and the comptroller’s office are reviewing six other suspected corruption cases against the prime minister, according to the Ha’aretz newspaper. Five other ministers or legislators from Mr. Olmert’s Kadima party have been implicated in various inquiries.

“It’s a disgrace. One of the biggest dangers to the state of Israel is [corruption]. It’s no less serious than the Iranian threat,” said Labor Party member Ophir Pines-Paz.

A poll published in Ha’aretz indicated that Kadima’s strength in the 120-member parliament would shrink from 29 seats to 12 if elections were held today.

Mr. Olmert is the fourth consecutive sitting Israeli prime minister to face corruption charges. However, investigations against Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu were closed without indictment.

Two weeks ago, police announced an investigation into suspected corruption at the Israel Tax Authority. The inquiry could implicate a former top Olmert aide.

The corruption charges have combined with widespread dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the war to feed suspicion of politicians and public servants.

In the first weeks after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, Mr. Olmert, Gen. Halutz and Mr. Peretz faced resignation calls from parliament members and a grass-roots movement of reservists who had fought in the war. As time passed, the protests quieted and Mr. Olmert seemed to bolster his coalition with the addition of a new partner.

The Halutz resignation might make it more difficult for Mr. Olmert to resume business as usual. Israeli commentators have referred to the three men as a “the holy trinity,” in which each figure’s political fate is dependent on the others.

“You have a progression heading upwards. Now that Halutz is going, the sense of the public demand for taking responsibility moves up a notch,” said Yossi Alpher, co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian opinion journal Bitterlemons.org. “His days could be numbered as prime minister. He is certainly looking at some severe tests to his ability to hang in there.”

The fallout from the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israeli forces, could be an ominous precedent for the prime minister. After military Chief of Staff David Elazar resigned at the recommendation of a state commission of inquiry, public pressure eventually forced Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to step down.

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