PM Likely to Face Two Criminal Probes Within Two Weeks

The Justice Ministry is expected to announce the opening of a criminal investigation against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert next week. The probe will focus on the state's sale of a controlling interest in Bank Leumi.

The ministry declined to confirm this, or a separate media report that it has decided to investigate Olmert over three different affairs: the Leumi sale, various benefits conferred on attorney Uri Messer, and political appointments at the Industry Ministry's Small Business Authority during his tenure there as minister. Information received by Haaretz indicates that the ministry plans criminal investigations into the first two of these affairs.

In a statement issued yesterday, a ministry spokesman said: "We wish to make it clear that we have no intention of commenting on any report, news item or speculation regarding affairs involving the prime minister. When the decision-making process on these sensitive and complex matters, which is still ongoing, has ended, an orderly announcement will be made to the public.

Channel 10 television reported last night that the police intend to open more than one criminal investigation against Olmert; that all the probes will be handled by the same police unit; and that an official announcement would be made upon Olmert's return from China next week.

The Justice Ministry's decision-making process is complex, not only because of the cases themselves, but because of various subsidiary questions that must be addressed. For instance, should Attorney General Menachem Mazuz recuse himself from the Leumi decision, since his sister, Yemima Mazuz, is the Finance Ministry's legal adviser and was therefore involved in the sale? If so, can he legally delegate his powers to another ministry official, given that the law explicitly states that only the attorney general can order a criminal investigation concerning the prime minister? And if so, who should make the decision - one of the deputy attorneys general or State Prosecutor Eran Shendar?

Suspicions that Olmert, in his former role as finance minister, was improperly involved in the Leumi sale first came to light in a report by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss. The main evidence against him is apparently the testimony of Accountant General Yaron Zelekha.

As first reported in Haaretz, an opinion prepared by attorney Michael Karshan of the Justice Ministry recommended a criminal investigation against Olmert in the Leumi affair, on suspicion of fraud, breach of trust and other crimes. However, Shendar then decided that more information was needed, and asked the police to carry out certain inquiries as part of the process of deciding whether to open a formal investigation.

The suspicions involving Messer, Olmert's former law partner, were first published in Haaretz Magazine. That report stated that Olmert, while serving as industry minister, personally considered most requests by Messer's clients, and approved benefits worth millions for them. Olmert allegedly met with Messer's clients and with Messer himself to discuss their requests, and also discussed their requests with the relevant Industry Ministry staff. In no case did Olmert report to the state comptroller or the attorney general about a possible conflict of interest, nor did he ever recuse himself from involvement in such requests.

The third affair, of political appointments in the Small Business Authority, was also initially exposed by Lindenstrauss, but after his report was published, the comptroller obtained additional evidence, which he has passed on to Mazuz. The comptroller's office said that this new evidence raises "serious suspicions" that the appointments were illegal.

'A paralyzed civil service'

Meanwhile, aides accompanying the prime minister on his trip to China this week charged yesterday that the civil service is liable to be paralyzed by fear of investigations. No civil servant will dare to make decisions, they said, lest he be suspected of granting benefits or preferential treatment to associates.

The plethora of probes now taking place in Israel was the main topic of conversation among Olmert's entourage, overshadowing events in China itself. Olmert's office manager, Shula Zaken, is a key suspect in the Tax Authority scandal, and one of his top aides, Oved Yehezkel, has been questioned by the police as a witness in the affair.

Unlike his predecessors in the job, Olmert did not take a delegation of businessmen with him to China, and yesterday, he ate alone with a group of Chinese businessmen. His aides attributed this, too, to the climate of fear of investigations.

"Had we brought businessmen, we would have had to give explanations to the state comptroller: Why this one and not that one?" explained one aide. "The comptroller would say that he questioned us and then accuse us of lying during the interrogation. What do we need this for?"

The aides noted that French President Jacques Chirac, in contrast, flies all over the world promoting French business, even when the flights are paid for by the businesses themselves.