Probe forces Israeli finance minister out temporarily

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- Israel's finance minister, Abraham Hirchson, said yesterday that he was leaving office for three months pending the outcome of a police investigation against him. The investigation involves suspicions that he embezzled funds before he joined the government, an Israeli police spokesman said.

Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, announced that he would temporarily take over the finance portfolio for Hirchson, who is a close political ally.

Also yesterday, Azmi Bishara, an Israeli Arab lawmaker and leader of the Arab nationalist party Balad, resigned from Parliament in a letter sent via the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. His resignation came one day before a court-imposed silence on the details of a police investigation against him was scheduled to expire.

Olmert's government has been dogged by investigations and scandals over the past year, contributing to a dive in approval ratings that are now in the single digits. Olmert is facing numerous investigations, including one involving his role in the sale of the government's controlling share in a bank when he was finance minister. Olmert's former justice minister, Haim Ramon, was found guilty in January of indecent behavior for kissing a soldier against her will.

Hirchson has been under investigation since the end of January and is suspected of embezzling from a nonprofit group associated with the National Workers' Labor Federation in 2003, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Hirchson had served as chairman of the labor federation and its health fund.

Hirchson denies any wrongdoing, his lawyer, Yaakov Weinrot, told army radio yesterday.

Hirchson issued a statement yesterday afternoon saying that his "public responsibility" and his "conscience" were the deciding factors in his decision to suspend himself, "as well as the recognition that my family members are the ones being harmed."

The resignation of Bishara, the Israeli Arab lawmaker, followed a period of feverish speculation in Israel about his whereabouts and intentions. Bishara, whose party has three seats in the 120-seat parliament, has been abroad under mysterious circumstances since early this month. Until last week, a court order prevented publication of the fact that he is under investigation.

While not revealing anything about the investigation, Bishara told Al-Jazeera television April 15 that he had been questioned by the police twice before leaving the country. Bishara, whose aides have said he is a victim of a political witch hunt, told the Arabic news media that his options were to become "a martyr, a prisoner or an exile."

He is being investigated by the International Crimes Unit of the police, which deals with serious crimes committed either at home or abroad, the police spokesman said.

Bishara has been interrogated by the police in the past, after visiting Syria, a country that does not have normal diplomatic relations with Israel. Israeli critics consider his political positions a threat to the future character of the country; Bishara rejects Israel's definition of itself as a Jewish state and has called for it to become a "state of all its citizens."

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