Israeli police raid offices in Olmert probe
JERUSALEM -Police raided more than 20 government buildings and private offices yesterday morning, seeking evidence in a series of criminal investigations of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, potentially weakening his position ahead of a crucial Mideast peace conference in the United States.
The early morning sweep was made just as Olmert's popularity, which plummeted after last year's inconclusive war against Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, has begun to rebound.
The raids targeted more than 20 locations, including the Industry and Trade Ministry, the Postal Authority, and Jerusalem's City Hall, said police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld.
"Police investigators are searching a number of government and private offices in connection with three ongoing investigations" into Olmert, Rosenfeld said.
Plainclothes police hauled cardboard boxes full of files out of the offices and loaded them into police vehicles - a scene that has been repeated several times in recent years during police investigations of Israeli premiers.
Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister from 1996 to 1999, was the object of suspicions that he misused power and improperly appropriated government gifts. His successor, Ehud Barak, was suspected of illegal campaign financing. Ariel Sharon, who served from 2001 until he was disabled by a stroke in 2006, was targeted by several police inquiries, including campaign finance and real estate irregularities.
None of the prime ministers was formally charged. Barak is now the defense minister, and Netanyahu, leader of the hard-line Likud opposition party, is a leading candidate for prime minister again.
Olmert's office would not comment on the raids, but in the past he often insisted he has done nothing wrong, dismissing the investigations as a political witch hunt.
Olmert is preparing for a US-hosted Mideast peace conference later this month in Annapolis, Md. He hopes the gathering will launch formal peace talks with the Palestinians after a seven-year lull.
A criminal indictment of Olmert would deal a heavy blow to the peace efforts.
Although he would not be forced to step down, he would be seriously weakened and probably face intense public pressure to step aside.
In one case, Olmert is suspected of buying a luxurious Jerusalem home at a substantial discount from a developer in exchange for arranging construction permits for the builder.
Olmert was once mayor of Jerusalem.