Bush advance team's unpaid dinner tab an Israeli scandal

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 24, 2009 

JERUSALEM — It may be known as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's last scandal. If it isn't settled soon, the brewing controversy also has the potential to become the first diplomatic dust-up between President Barack Obama and America's strongest Middle East ally.

At issue is an unpaid $320 bill for dinner with a White House advance team at a restaurant near Olmert's official residence.

For nine months, Restobar co-owner Abigail Elior said, she and her staff have been quietly trying to get the prime minister's office to pay the tab and avoid becoming Israel's highest-profile scofflaws.

Now they're taking their appeal public to ask: Who'll pay for the entrecote steak and apple pie?

"It's just outrageous," said Elior, 31. "This is our lives and our income, and nobody cares."

Faced with stonewalling from Olmert's office, the frustrated restaurant owners threatened Tuesday, mostly in jest, to demand payment from the White House.

"It's embarrassing for me to have to go to the White House," co-owner Shahar Levy told Israel's newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. "But for this amount of meat and alcohol, they need to pay me."

The prime minister's office said Tuesday that the issue came to light in December and that officials were working to pay the tab quickly.

It all began last May, when an Olmert aide called Restobar to ask whether the restaurant could take a last-minute booking for a meal with a White House advance team that was in town to prepare for then-President George W. Bush's second visit to Israel.

The group dined on entrecote and beer, pasta and sorbet, chocolate mousse and lattes. They finished things off with apple pie.

"They ate. They drank. They had a nice bill at the end of the evening," Elior said.

Olmert aides promised to pay it promptly, she said.

Restobar was told time and again that the tab would be settled soon.

"On and on and on, for weeks and weeks," she said.

Elior is hoping that a little public pressure will help put the matter to rest.

If it isn't resolved, it has the potential to linger as Olmert's last scandal.

For more than two years, he's been dogged by a series of political corruption allegations that eventually forced him to announce his resignation last July.

Last November, Israel's attorney general told Olmert that he was preparing to indict him on charges of double-billing charities and taking the money for his own personal use. Olmert and his attorneys say that his name will be cleared when all the facts come out.

Israel's political-coalition system has prevented anyone else from forming a new government, however, so Olmert is still in office. Now he's waiting for Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has about 60 days to form a new government.

Because of its location near the prime minister's official residence, Restobar is something of a landmark in Jerusalem. Seven years ago next month, a Palestinian suicide bomber hit the location, then known as Cafe Moment, killing 11 people.

Elior and Levy took ownership four years ago.

Olmert and his government reportedly are considering releasing one of the Palestinian men convicted of plotting the 2002 bombing in exchange for the return of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Palestinian militants in Gaza have held since they captured him in 2006.

Elior is hoping that the bill won't get lost again as Olmert prepares to pack up and move out.

"This is the Israeli government's fault," she said. "The bureaucracy here is just terrible."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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