Israel's defiant Olmert says will stay on the job

1/06/2008 - 19:36

By Ori Lewis

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmertvowed on Sunday to stay in office and continue to lead theKadima party, showing no signs of buckling under pressure of apolice corruption probe and calls for him to step down.

Olmert has denied wrongdoing in the case of a NewYork-based financier who testified in court last week that hegave $150,000 in cash to the Israeli leader while he heldprevious public positions.

Olmert, who has promised to quit if indicted, has admittedreceiving money from Morris Talansky but says the funds werelegitimate campaign contributions and his actions were alllegal. His lawyers have yet to cross-examine Talansky.

"In all the matters that concern me, I just want to say, Ihave not yet been given the opportunity, but I will have thechance and I will say what needs to be said and clarify whatmust be clarified in an unequivocal manner," Olmert said.

After the testimony, Defence Minister Ehud Barak'sleft-leaning Labour Party, Olmert's main coalition partner,called on him to step aside and threatened to force an earlygeneral election, without setting a firm deadline.

Of more immediate concern to Olmert are efforts by Kadimarivals, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, to pursue aninternal leadership ballot to pick his replacement.

Kadima sources said Olmert wants his party to put off anysuch vote for months, hoping to ride out the police probe.

In a veiled comment aimed at Livni, who called on Olmert toquit in 2007 over his handling of the 2006 war in Lebanon andwho sat at a table with him on Sunday night, Olmert said otherKadima members looking to topple him would have to wait.

"I know that political events of the last few days have putpressure on some people. ... I propose that we do not act underpressure," he said.

"We are charged with a heavy responsibility of managing theaffairs of state and we should do so in a considered andthoughtful manner. ... I think that we must subdue anybody whois not calm and continue to act as a united, strong andfocussed party," he added.

Olmert's political future has cast a shadow over his rolein ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

U.S. President George W. Bush hopes Palestinian statehoodtalks can achieve a deal before he leaves office in about sevenmonths, but Israeli domestic political turmoil could derail theprocess in which Olmert is deeply involved.

The embattled leader sets off on a visit to the UnitedStates on Monday to discuss issues at the heart of U.S.-Israelirelations and the Middle East conflict, but told his Kadimacolleagues that he would continue to work upon his return.

"Tomorrow evening I will leave for an important visit whichwill involve the most intrinsic and delicate matters concerningthe Israel's future. Next week, when I return, we will have achance to continue to move forward the processes which we tookupon ourselves and of which Kadima is the engine," he said.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Mary Gabriel)

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