Israeli prime minister denies taking bribes as investigation deepens

Moshe "Morris" Talansky is suspected of passing cash to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the late 1990s.
Moshe "Morris" Talansky is suspected of passing cash to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the late 1990s. Yossi Zamir / Flash 90 / MCT

JERUSALEM — Facing a deepening investigation that threatens his political career, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert late Thursday night held an unusual press conference on his nation's Independence Day to deny allegations that he accepted bribes from an American businessman.

Minutes after an Israeli court eased a week-old gag order on the case, Olmert emerged from his official residence to read a live, televised statement in which he pledged to step down if prosecutors decide to charge him.

"I look into the eyes of every one of you and say: I never received a bribe. I never put a penny in my pocket," said Olmert.

But, Olmert added, "if the attorney general decides to indict me, I will resign."

After a day spent taking part in celebrations marking 60 years since Israel's founding, Olmert hastily called reporters to his home to discuss the rapidly unfolding investigation.

Olmert admitted that he'd received campaign contributions from New York businessman Moshe "Morris" Talansky. But he suggested that the donations, handled by his longtime law partner, had all been legal.

Earlier this week, prosecutors asked the court to bring Talansky to court so he could be further questioned about whether he illegally passed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Olmert.

The allegations cast a pall over Olmert as the prime minister is preparing to welcome President Bush next week for the nation's anniversary celebrations.

Even if the charges prove to be false, the investigation could weaken Olmert's shaky coalition government and undermine sluggish peace talks with the Palestinians.

The case marks the fourth active investigation of Olmert, who has served as Israel's prime minister for 28 months. But this is the first time that Olmert has taken such an unusual step in defending himself.

The case caught the public's attention last Thursday, when Israeli police made an urgent request to question Olmert about the charges. Olmert spent more than an hour Friday talking to police as a judge imposed a gag order on the details of his involvement with Talansky, 75.

On Thursday, Talansky called the charges "baffling."

The white-haired businessman said police showed up at his Jerusalem apartment last week and asked him to come in for questioning about his ties to Olmert.

Appearing slightly disheveled and unshaven, Talansky portrayed himself as a good-natured, champion of Israel who'd done nothing wrong.

"I'm not involved in politics," Talansky told Israel's Channel 2 News. "I've never been involved in politics."

Talansky, however, has contributed to various American politicians. According to the Federal Election Commission, he gave a total of $3,500 between 1997 and 2003. Among those receiving his largesse were President Bush, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New York Sen. Charles Schumer.

In his statement to reporters, Olmert said Talansky repeatedly had helped him raise money between 1993 and 2002. Olmert said he used the funds to run for mayor of Jerusalem, pay off campaign debts and run in Likud Party primaries.

Israel's Haaretz newspaper said Thursday that Talansky was known among Olmert aides as "the launderer."

For now, Olmert said he'd continue to focus on the nation's business and wait for the investigation to unfold.

"I hope this storm will pass as quickly as it came," Olmert said before heading back into his residence without taking questions.

(Special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)

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