Zelekha no longer lone accuser in Leumi affair
The accountant general of the Finance Ministry, Yaron Zelekha, is no longer alone in his claims regarding Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's involvement in the Bank Leumi shares tender. Sources involved in the investigation have confirmed that other employees in the Finance Minister have given statements to the state comptroller in support of Zelekha's testimony. The identities of those other employees have not been revealed, and it is not clear whether they are from Zelekha's department or another department within the treasury.
The sources also said the evidence against Olmert regarding his alleged efforts to affect the structure of the Bank Leumi tender to benefit Frank Lowy, an associate of the prime minister's, was "serious and well-founded. It is not a mess of speculations."
The presence of testimony supporting Zelekha's version of events, if it indeed exists, is of great importance since in public, at least, other treasury officials are presenting a united front rejecting Zelekha's version. Treasury director general Yossi Bachar publicly declared that, to the best of his knowledge, Zelekha's claims were groundless.
"I took part in some of the meetings, although not all of them," Bachar said yesterday, "and in the meetings I attended the discussion met the criteria for transparent debate including an exchange of opinions and multiplicity of participants. The process was handled professionally and transparently."
Bachar even reiterated his opinion that Zelekha's testimony had had a negative impact on the involvement of foreign investors in tenders issued by the state of Israel.
"We must be cautious in issuing press releases before they are examined," Bachar said. "It is very odd that, on the one hand, Israel is wooing foreign investors and making every effort to get them to invest, but on the other hand is issuing press releases in the places where these investors live that could be interpreted to mean they did something wrong. It will cause foreign investors to stay away."
When asked whether he was persuaded that the Leumi tender process was above board in light of the police investigation into Zelekha's claims, Bachar responded, "I am convinced of everything I said, and when I say something, it is only following an examination."
Bachar is the only senior treasury official who has commented publicly on the affair. It has been reported that Itzhak Klein, CEO of Inbal Insurance, which held the tender for Bank Leumi, submitted testimony to the state comptroller that contradicted Zelekha's claims. In general, it can be said that the entire top echelon of the Finance Ministry agrees with Bachar and Klein.
Treasury officials said yesterday that Olmert's acquaintance with Lowy was superficial and that all the deliberations led by Olmert on the Leumi tender were appropriate. According to one official, it cannot be expected "that a finance minister would recuse himself each time there's a foreign investor that he knows. Ministers are acquainted with foreign investors, that's why we send them abroad to convince foreigners to come and invest here. Requiring them to recuse themselves would lead to [a situation in which] no ministers would be left to take responsibility for handling complex processes."
The overwhelming stance by treasury officials against Zelekha brings the rift within the top ranks of the Finance Ministry to a new low. The relationship with Zelekha, who is currently abroad advancing a state bond issue, is on the skids, and it could be said that his treasury colleagues are virtually expelling him from their number.
Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson, however, has denied that this rift will interfere with the treasury's work. "My relationship with all the officials is appropriate. The economy of the state of Israel is important and we know how to keep things separate," Hirchson said.