Foreign National Is Key Witness in New Probe of Olmert

The Jerusalem District Court yesterday allowed publication of the fact that the State Prosecutor's Office has asked it to hear preliminary testimony from a foreign national who is the central witness in the suspicions against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "This does not indicate that an indictment will be issued against the respondents, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Shula Zaken," Judges Moussia Arad, Zvi Zylbertal and Moshe Sobol wrote.

The request was apparently made so that the individual would not have to come back to Israel to testify at a possible trial.

Law enforcement officials said yesterday the court's ruling indicated the seriousness of the suspicions and the information collected so far, and that the chances of an indictment were high.

The law allows testimony to be taken before an indictment is issued in cases where testimony is central to the case and might not be available later, or pressure might be brought to bear on a witness not to testify.

The court adjourned after a five-hour session without ruling. According to State Prosecutor Moshe Lador, a decision will be rendered soon.

Following the hearing, Lador said that deposing a foreign citizen is not unusual in such cases, "although this case is a little different from the cases we customarily deal with."

If the court agrees to hear testimony from the witness, Olmert and his attorneys would receive the relevant material in a few days, so that they could prepare to cross-examine him.

The gag order prevents publication of the details of the request to the court to depose the foreign national or the response by Olmert and Zaken's attorneys, Eli Zohar and Micha Fetman.

The New York Post yesterday reported details on the probe on its web site, including the name of the foreign individual, but these details are banned in Israel. Police sources said in response that the gag order is continually "being undermined and losing its significance."

When asked about the point of the gag order, in view of what the foreign press has published, Lador said, "the court knows."

Olmert's attorney, Eli Zohar, said on leaving court: "The gag order certainly damages the prime minister, but our position could be understood as if we want to harm the investigation. And so we are wavering, and decided to leave the matter up to the court."

Zaken's attorney was asked on leaving court whether she had been asked to turn state's witness, to which he said, "unequivocally no." When asked whether Zaken's and Olmert's interests were one and the same, he answered, "at this stage, we have one position."

Lador said yesterday in court that the gag order would not be lifted before Independence Day. A Justice Ministry official said the gag order might be lifted this week.

Police questioned Zaken at length yesterday at the offices of the National Fraud Squad in Bat Yam. It was Zaken's fourth interrogation session, during which she again maintained her right to remain silent. She is now under house arrest.