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In Israel, a Season of Scandal Fuels Discontent With Leaders

September 14, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The president faces allegations of sexual harassment. A former Cabinet minister who once oversaw the nation's police is awaiting trial on bribery and fraud charges. And Israel's top government watchdog has recommended a criminal investigation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over possible cronyism in past hiring.

The allegations of misdeeds, coming as many Israelis are in a foul mood over the government's handling of the recent war in Lebanon, have added to a fast-growing list of political scandals in Israel and, analysts say, further eroded confidence in national leaders.

"There's a feeling of system collapse, of the country in a funk," commentator Yoel Marcus wrote last week in the daily Haaretz newspaper.

President Moshe Katsav, whose post is mostly ceremonial, has been at the center of a public uproar amid a two-month police investigation into whether he made unwanted sexual advances toward a female staff member who worked in the presidential offices.

Katsav, who was appointed in 2000 after President Ezer Weizman resigned amid a corruption scandal of his own, has denied the charges. He has accused the woman of making them up in an extortion effort.

At least one other former staff member has since lodged a police complaint alleging that Katsav harassed her, Israeli media have reported. Katsav, questioned by police for a fifth time Wednesday, said he was the victim of a "despicable libel." The swirling controversy prompted him to ask parliament to excuse him from swearing in a new Supreme Court president today. During Wednesday's questioning, police also asked Katsav about suspected irregularities in the granting of clemency and about alleged phone-tapping, Haaretz and another newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, reported on their websites.

A ranking member of Olmert's Kadima movement, lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, was told last month that he would be tried on fraud, bribery and other charges over alleged improprieties in making government appointments. The alleged violations occurred from 2001 to 2003, while he was environment minister and a leader of the Likud Party. Hanegbi, who later served as public security minister, has denied the charges.

Meanwhile, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss has recommended that prosecutors investigate whether Olmert broke the law in naming several political allies to a small business agency while he was the trade and industry minister in 2004. Lindenstrauss is already looking into allegations that Olmert paid a below-market price for a Jerusalem home in exchange for his influence.

Olmert has denied wrongdoing in both instances. He has been investigated for possible corruption more than once but has never been convicted of wrongdoing. Israeli news reports raised questions this week over a separate real estate deal involving Olmert, his wife and a past political contributor.

And former Justice Minister Haim Ramon went on trial Monday on charges that he kissed a female soldier against her will. Ramon's lawyer says the kissing encounter, in July, was brief and consensual.

The scandals have generated postwar grist for editorial cartoonists and satirists while exacerbating what polls show is the Israeli public's generally low regard for political leaders and institutions.

"There's a growing decline in trust. We witness it in poll after poll," said Uri Dromi, director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Jerusalem. The group issued a survey earlier this year that found, for example, that only 1 in 6 respondents believed politicians tried to fulfill their campaign promises.

The lack of confidence, analysts said, has helped produce a steady drop in voter turnout, which in March hit a low for a regular election, 63%.

"There's a general nausea about politics. And then on top of this comes the war," Dromi said.

Polls show that the outcome of the Lebanon conflict has taken a big toll on the public standings of Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

The prime minister faces additional criticism for opposing an independent inquiry into the government's performance during the 34-day war, proposing instead an internal investigation that many see as an effort to soften any findings.

Skepticism toward Israeli leaders was entrenched before the war, fueled by a string of legal and ethical entanglements involving public figures. More than a dozen members of the last session of the Israeli parliament -- a body of 120 legislators -- were investigated or prosecuted for a range of offenses. The convicted included a lawmaker who gained a university degree fraudulently by handing in papers that were written by other people.

Omri Sharon, the eldest son of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and a member of parliament, pleaded guilty last year to illegal fundraising during his father's 1999 campaign for leadership of the Likud. He received a nine-month prison sentence and resigned his post.

Public wrongdoing cases have multiplied during the last 20 years, said Eliad Shraga, who heads the nonprofit Movement for Quality Government in Israel.

"Unfortunately, we see our leadership is a corrupt leadership," Shraga said, noting that malfeasance has crossed party lines. He has been on a hunger strike for more than two weeks in support of his group's call for an independent inquiry into the Lebanon war.

Cameron Brown, an analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, said an appetite among Israelis for fresh and credible faces could encourage people such as Ami Ayalon, a Labor Party lawmaker with a clean reputation, and Moshe Yaalon, a former army chief and conservative who is seen as a possible member of a future Likud lineup.

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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