JERUSALEM, Israel // Israeli police questioned Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a third time over graft allegations that have prompted widespread calls for him to resign. Detectives are said to be asking Mr Olmert particularly tough questions based on documents and testimony investigators have gathered in the United States. The two-hour grilling took place today at the premier's official residence in Jerusalem where he questioned twice in May.
Authorities are trying to establish whether Mr Olmert, 62, dispensed favours in exchange for funds he allegedly received illegally from Morris Talansky, a millionaire US financier, during the 13 years before he became premier in 2006. Mr Olmert, who was Jerusalem mayor and trade and industry minister before becoming prime minister, has admitted receiving campaign funds from Mr Talansky but denied suggestions of wrongdoing.
The allegations have stirred calls for his resignation and early elections, even from within his centrist Kadima party and its Labour allies. On Thursday, Kadima agreed to hold a leadership primary election between September 14 and 18 under a deal with coalition partner Labour aimed at quenching a deep political crisis. The foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, is viewed as the front-runner in the primary election, while the transport minister, Shaul Mofaz, and public security minister, Avi Dichter, are also vying for the top job. It remains unclear whether Mr Olmert himself will seek to run again.
A survey of registered Kadima voters published by Yediot Aharonot newspaper showed that Mr Livni would win a primary with 37 per cent while Mr Mofaz would get 22 per cent and Mr Olmert 18 per cent. Should Mr Olmert not run, then Mr Livni would get 41 per cent and Mr Mofaz 30 per cent. A further 79 per cent said that Mr Olmert must resign after the party primary and hand the premiership baton to whoever wins the leadership election.
Mr Olmert has vowed to remain in office as long as he does not face indictment. But the Talansky case ? the fourth investigation to embroil the premier ? has whipped up a political storm. The Labour party has threatened to quit the coalition if Mr Olmert is not replaced, a move that would probably bring down the government and force a general election. Mr Talansky testified before a Jerusalem court in May that he had given Mr Olmert thousands of dollars to finance his political ambitions and perhaps his taste for high living over a period of 15 years.
Mr Olmert's legal team is scheduled to cross-examine Mr Talansky next week. The premier's lawyer, Eli Zohar, told the Jerusalem district court that his team will need five days for the cross examination. * AFP