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News Analysis Scandals Threaten Olmert’s Term,

A year after Ariel Sharon was felled by a stroke, Israelis are talking about another crippling malaise in the top office. This time, however, it’s a metaphor for the corruption and outright criminality that many believe have taken root among those closest to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other national institutions.

The latest shockwave was the police questioning of Olmert’s senior aide, Shula Zaken, and the current and former director of the Israel Tax Authority on suspicion of graft.

Zaken denied wrongdoing, but that was of little consolation to Israelis, who have seen a slew of Olmert confidantes and Cabinet colleagues have their names raised in police probes or who have already appeared in court.

Among them are President Moshe Katsav, who could face charges of molestation and rape; former Justice Minister Haim Ramon, on trial for sexual assault; and Tzahi Hanegbi, a senior member of Olmert’s Kadima Party, who is accused of cronyism while in a previous Cabinet post.

Yediot Achronot commentator Sima Kadmon wrote that Israelis have lost any faith they had left in the law-enforcement systems and governmental bodies of their country.

With Olmert’s approval rating slumped at about 22 percent since the Lebanon war, some see his political days as numbered.

“Olmert’s position has never been more fragile,” Kadmon wrote.

“His measure of involvement makes no difference already. It is the image that counts. And the image exists already because of the apartment affair, the political appointments, Bank Leumi,” she added, referring to misconduct allegations that have dogged Olmert, despite his assertions of innocence, since he formally succeeded Sharon in March.

Kinder critics of the government note that Olmert inherited many of the scandals besetting his administration from his predecessor.

“There is no doubt that the person heading the system was corrupt to the core,” Barak Halevy, a member of the Movement for Quality Government watchdog group, told Israel Radio. “And Arik Sharon acted in way that was corrupt to the core in several areas.”

But the very fact that Sharon survived politically until ill health curbed his career paradoxically bodes well for Olmert’s prospects.

“Until it comes to pass that an Israeli prime minister is brought down due to a corruption scandal, nothing significant will change in the country in this regard,” said Emmanuel Rosen, a senior commentator with Channel 2 television.

Corruption, however, is a world away from national security, and one episode that has been harder to shake has been the 34-day war against Hezbollah over the summer, which many Israelis believe only undermined national security.

Some say Olmert is cursed by Israel’s diplomatic deadlock, and that if he were to manage a breakthrough with the Palestinians or Syria, the public scrutiny on the apparent malfunctioning of his administration would diminish.

Yet the stasis in Olmert’s statecraft looks set to continue for now. Israel must stand on the sidelines and quietly hope for the best as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas tries to take on the Hamas Islamists with whom he shares power. Any Israeli overtures toward Abbas at this point risk painting him as a stooge in Palestinian eyes.

As for Syria, even if Olmert believes the recent talk about peace out of Damascus, he cannot be expected to act until President Bush’s Iraq strategy becomes clear.

Until the chance for a new diplomatic direction becomes available, it seems Olmert is intent on polishing a coalition government that even his detractors admit has already proven its value by passing the 2007 budget on schedule — a rarity in recent years.

The wild card would be Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, who if media reports are to be believed, Olmert plans to fire from the key Cabinet post for incompetence. Olmert’s office has said such a purge is “not on the agenda for now.”

Challenging Peretz would threaten the stability of the government, as Labor is the senior coalition partner with Kadima. But Olmert reportedly has attended to that by arranging for former Prime Minister Ehud Barak to take over the Defense Ministry — something that would certainly help Barak in his recently announced bid to topple Peretz in the Labor primary in May.

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