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Israeli premier denies taking bribes

May 09, 2008|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday acknowledged receiving regular contributions for years from a Jewish American businessman but denied that any of the money constituted a bribe.

His statement came after an Israeli court partially lifted a nearly week-old gag order blocking the country's news media from revealing details of the case. They immediately reported that prosecutors were investigating whether the prime minister had received tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from millionaire Morris Talansky of Long Island.

"I look each and every one of you in the eye and say I have never received a bribe and I have never taken a penny for my own pocket," Olmert said at a brief news conference.

He pledged to resign if indicted by Atty. Gen. Menachem Mazuz.

The investigation covers matters that date to Olmert's tenures as mayor of Jerusalem and minister of industry.

The prime minister was questioned last week by investigators. That event, followed by the gag order issued by the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court, placed the normally raucous Israeli news media in the awkward position of analyzing the serious implications of accusations they couldn't specify.

The gag order began to weaken Tuesday when the New York Post identified the businessman involved in the alleged bribery as Talansky, who served as treasurer of Olmert's nonprofit New Jerusalem Foundation. The story enabled Israeli media outlets to evade the gag order by reporting on the Post's report.

With the order now partially lifted by the court that imposed it, the scandal seems destined to loom over President Bush's visit to Israel next week to help commemorate the state's 60th anniversary, which Israelis marked Thursday.

The prime minister acknowledged knowing Talansky and receiving donations from him for campaigns over the last two decades. Olmert, a career politician who now heads the Kadima Party, has been implicated in corruption scandals over the years but has never been formally charged.

He promised to cooperate fully with investigators. "I hope this storm will pass as quickly as it was ignited," he said.

Israel's Channel 10 news reported that Talansky had already cooperated with Israeli investigators and detailed his role as a middleman for illegal campaign contributions.

But Talansky, a frequent visitor to Israel who is in the country on vacation, told Israel's Channel 2 that the charges were "totally baffling."

"It's Independence Day, and I don't think there should be any talk about politics."

Talansky told Channel 2 that he was in Jerusalem to celebrate the recent Passover holiday with his children when there was a knock on his door at 6 a.m. Wednesday.

"I went downstairs, and it was the national police," he said. "They asked me to come with them, and I obliged. I said what I know. Yes, I have known [Olmert] for 20 years."

He and Olmert frequently dined together during the prime minister's visits to New York, Talansky said.

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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