Ehud Olmert era comes to ignominious end

(JTA) – A day after Ehud Olmert formally submitted his resignation as prime minister, Israeli President Shimon Peres officially tapped his Kadima Party successor, Tzipi Livni, to form a new government.

Livni now has 42 days to put together a coalition government. Though Olmert still heads the interim government until Livni is sworn in, Sunday’s resignation effectively spelled the end of the Olmert era.

Before meeting with Peres on Sunday evening, Olmert informed his Cabinet of his intention to resign.

“I must say that this was not an easy or simple decision,” Olmert said. “I think that I have acted properly and responsibly, as I promised the Israeli public from the beginning.”

Olmert congratulated Livni and said he would help her form a coalition government, and the two shook hands.

It was an ignominious end to a premiership marked by multiple corruption scandals, a failed war in Lebanon and unfinished business on the Palestinian, Syrian and Iranian fronts.

At first an accidental prime minister following Ariel Sharon’s crippling stroke in early 2006, Olmert won his first election as Kadima leader a couple of months later under the banner of maintaining the path of unilateral disengagement Sharon had begun. Olmert would do in the West Bank what Sharon had done in Gaza: unilaterally extricate Israel from its adversaries, even if those adversaries were unready or unwilling to make peace.

But the shortcomings of Israel’s unilateral approach became evident early on in his premiership. The 2006 summer war with Hezbollah exposed the deficiencies of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000 under Ehud Barak, and the increasing rockets attacks from Gaza and Hamas’ takeover of the strip in June 2007 exposed the limitations of Sharon’s pullout.

The violence shattered Olmert’s plans for unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank.

Olmert adjusted his approach, but his responses to Israel’s challenges were seen as inadequate. The prime minister’s approval ratings plummeted as each crisis seemed to be shadowed by one corruption scandal or another.

After Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid in July 2006, the Olmert government launched a war to recover the two soldiers taken captive in the raid and neutralize the threat to Israel from Hezbollah. But the war failed to recover the soldiers or deliver a mortal blow to the Shi’ite terrorist group in Lebanon.

Rather, Hezbollah rallied as a political force in Lebanon after the war and became a veto-wielding presence in the Lebanon Cabinet. Hezbollah also rebuilt its forces and missile arsenal to three times its prewar size, according to Israeli estimates.

In Gaza, Olmert watched as Hamas routed the more moderate Fatah faction from power and took over the strip in June 2006. Hamas kept up daily barrages of Kassam rockets into southern Israel, and the Israeli army was unable to impose quiet.

Unwilling to risk the same approach in Gaza that had failed in 2006 in Lebanon, Olmert held off on ordering a major invasion of the strip.

The need to isolate Hezbollah, Hamas and especially their backer, Iran, drove Olmert to push harder for peace. It led to the re-launching last year of peace talks with the Palestinians at Annapolis, Md., and to this year’s renewed talks with Syria under Turkish auspices, but Olmert ended his abbreviated term with those major policy initiatives unfinished.

Now it will be up to Livni, who led the Olmert administration’s talks with the Palestinians, to see the process through—assuming she succeeds in assembling a governing coalition.

Israel’s next prime minister also will inherit an unsolved Iranian problem. Iran’s suspected march toward nuclear weapons has been Israel’s central foreign preoccupation during Olmert’s term, but Olmert did not manage to rally sufficient international pressure on the Islamic Republic to bring its uranium enrichment activities to a halt.

Throughout his 2 1/2-year term, Olmert was dogged by corruption allegations that cast a shadow over nearly everything he did.

Even his decision to re-launch the indirect peace talks with Syria and sign a cease-fire deal with Hamas in Gaza in June—finally bringing quiet to southern Israel, with the exception of the occasional violation—were viewed with suspicion by some who derided the moves as ploys to ensure his political survival.

The major corruption scandal that erupted in May, in which American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky said he gave Olmert $150,000 in cash over the course of the decade and a half before Olmert became prime minister, crippled Olmert’s ability to govern.

Calls for his resignation accelerated several weeks later with the revelation by police that Olmert was suspected of double-billing overseas trips to various Jewish charities.

Though he always denied any wrongdoing, Olmert acknowledged at the end of July that it had become impossible for him to continue as prime minister, and he announced that he would resign as soon as his party, Kadima, chose a new leader in September.

After Olmert handed his resignation letter to Peres on Sunday, the president offered a few solemn words.

“This is not an easy decision, and I am convinced that this is a difficult evening for him,” Peres said. “I wish to take this opportunity to thank the prime minister for his service to the people and the state over the course of many years of public activities—as the mayor of Jerusalem, as a minister in the government and as the prime minister of Israel.”

Ron Kampeas in Washington and Marcy Oster in Israel contributed to this report.

A Rosh Hashanah message from Ehud Olmert

Ehud Olmert should be indicted, Israeli police tell prosecutors

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Ehud Olmert should be indicted on corruption charges, Israeli police recommended Sunday.

Bribery is the most serious of the charges that police recommended against the prime minister to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. Others include fraud, breach of trust and money laundering.

The corruption charges stem from two investigations of Olmert. In the Rishon Tours double billing affair, he allegedly used money from charitable organizations to fund family trips. In the Talansky affair, Olmert is alleged to have received illegal contributions from American businessman Morris Talansky over the course of 15 years.

Police are still reviewing evidence in a third case; Olmert is under investigation in six cases.

The recommendations, along with investigative material, will be passed on to the state prosecutor’s office. Once the material is passed on and a hearing held for Olmert, the prosecutor’s office will make a decision on filing an indictment in about two weeks.

Police also recommended charging Olmert’s former bureau chief Shula Zaken.

A statement from the Prime Ministers Office called the recommendations “meaningless.”

Olmert steps down

Israeli policy headed for radical changes in post-Olmert era

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to resign after a new Kadima Party leader is elected in September has opened up the possibility of radical new directions in Israeli policy.

As of now Olmert has four potential successors, since Kadima’s new leader may not be able to stave off new general elections.

Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party and Shaul Mofaz of Kadima are inveterate hawks who see peace, if it is at all possible, being achieved only in drawn-out, painstaking stages. Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Ehud Barak of the Labor Party are pragmatic doves ready to cut to the chase but wary of illusory quick fixes.

Important differences exist within the two camps.

Netanyahu views the current attempt by the Olmert government to reach final peace deals with the Palestinians and the Syrians as foolhardy. He is against what he calls “endism”—trying to end the complex Israeli-Arab conflict with a single stroke—and instead advocates a measured, step-by-step approach.

For example, on the Syrian track, Damascus would have to break with Tehran and demonstrate over time that the breach is final before Israel returns any part of the Golan Heights. Other powers interested in moving Syria away from Iran, including the United States and the European Union, would be called on to provide much of the quid pro quo to Syria, making it possible for Israel to retain at least part of the strategic Golan.

On the Palestinian track, Netanyahu regards the “shelf agreement” Olmert is negotiating with the relatively moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank as meaningless. Under present conditions, with Hamas controlling Gaza, Netanyahu sees no way to implement an agreement now or in the foreseeable future.

Instead, he again advocates a step-by-step framework in which each side progresses only after the other has fulfilled a commitment. Under Ariel Sharon, this performance-based, reciprocal approach led to a stalemate.

Netanyahu hopes that the creation of new economic realities in the West Bank will provide the infrastructure for political progress. The former prime minister strongly backs efforts to that effect by Tony Blair, the special envoy of the Quartet grouping of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

Like Blair, Netanyahu sees economic progress driving a peace process, not the other way round.

Netanyahu’s top priority, however, would be stopping Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. He has been urging world leaders to impose stronger economic sanctions on Tehran to alleviate the need for force. But if Netanyahu becomes prime minister, a pre-emptive Israeli military strike cannot be ruled out.

Mofaz, although he abandoned the Likud for Kadima, is as hawkish as Netanyahu. In fact, were the current transportation minister to win the Kadima leadership, the split between Likud and Kadima could become a thing of the past. Mofaz left Likud reluctantly when pressed by Sharon, Kadima’s founder, and after Sharon promised to make him defense minister.

The Iranian-born Mofaz takes a long view of historic processes in the Middle East who sees change evolving slowly over decades. Peace, in his view, will come only when conditions are ripe and cannot be accelerated artificially.

On the Syrian track, Mofaz says he is ready to offer “peace for peace”—an old Likud counter to the Arab land-for-peace formula. He also would be unlikely to make territorial concessions on the Palestinian front.

Indeed Mofaz, a former army chief of staff and defense minister, would likely be less industrious than Netanyahu in creating conditions for peace, but more proactive in trying to stop Iran from going nuclear.

Mofaz, who heads the Israeli team in strategic dialogue with the United States, has warned that Iran will cross the nuclear weapons threshold in 2009 or 2010 and said that if the international community fails to interdict the process, Israel will.

Like his colleagues on the right, Barak sees the Middle East as a tough, unforgiving neighborhood in which the weak are devoured—he once famously described Israel as a “villa in the jungle.”

The difference between Barak and the hard-line Netanyahu and Mofaz is his conviction that Israel to survive must be strong and divest itself of the West Bank to ensure a Jewish majority in a democratic state.

After the failure of the Camp David negotiations with Yasser Arafat in 2000, the then-prime minister Barak was quick to claim there was no genuine Palestinian peace partner. That led him to back the notion of unilateral withdrawal as the only way to establish a border between Israel and the Palestinians.

Barak modified his thinking, however, when Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was followed by ceaseless Kassam rocket attacks. He still seems to envisage an eventual unilateral pullout from the West Bank, but only after Israel has an effective anti-missile defense system.

As defense minister, Barak has made the development of a multilayered anti-missile system—one that provides protection against long-, medium- and short-range missiles—a top priority.

Livni, whose parents both fought for the prestate Irgun underground, entered politics in 1996 holding fiercely hawkish positions. But as minister for regional cooperation in the first Sharon government in 2001, she underwent a profound ideological metamorphosis, turning from hawk to relative dove.

A lawyer by training, Livni places supreme importance on Israel retaining international legitimacy by withdrawing to a line close to the 1967 borders and allowing the Palestinians to establish a state of their own.

Livni, now the foreign minister, sees one of the main tasks of government as securing the best post-withdrawal conditions for Israel. For example, she insists that no Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel proper, arguing that the Palestinians cannot simultaneously demand a state and insist that their refugees be settled somewhere else.

Livni was one of the chief backers of Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, but also after the Kassams from Gaza, she says Israel cannot simply leave the West Bank and “throw the keys over the fence.”

Thus, unlike her three main rivals, Livni advocates intensive negotiations with the Palestinians on a final peace deal and bringing in an international force to help implement it. But Livni is in no hurry and would be less likely than Olmert to make concessions on key principles—like the refugee issue—for a deal.

The first stage in the battle to succeed Olmert is scheduled for Sept. 17, when Kadima holds its primary. Livni and Mofaz are the runaway front-runners: A recent poll in Israel’s daily Ma’ariv gave Livni 51 percent of the party vote to Mofaz’s 43 percent.

The second stage in the leadership stakes could come as soon as early 2009. If Kadima’s winner fails to assemble a coalition government, the Knesset will be dissolved and early general elections would be held, bringing Netanyahu and Barak into the picture.

Whoever finally emerges as the new prime minister, a break with Olmert’s policies seems certain.

Ehud Olmert: A political time line

NEW YORK (JTA)—The following is a time line of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s political career:

Sept. 30, 1945 Born to Bella and Mordechai Olmert in Binyamina, near Haifa.

November 1963-1971 Begins military service in the Golani Brigade, but hand and feet injuries that predate his service force him out of the combat unit. He completes his service as a reporter for the IDF magazine, Bamahane.

1965 As student representative of the Herut Party, the predecessor to Likud, Olmert makes a name for himself by demanding the resignation of party chief Menachem Begin.

December 1973 Elected to the Knesset as a Likud Party member.

December 1976 After Olmert discloses to the Knesset that Housing Minister Avraham Ofer is likely to be the subject of a police investigation, Ofer kills himself.

December 1988 Appointed minister without portfolio in charge of minority affairs by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

April 1989 Comes under criticism for receiving a $50,000 loan from a fictitious company owned by the head of the Bank of North America, Yehoshua Halperin. Olmert is tried and acquitted.

June 1990 Appointed health minister under Yitzhak Shamir.

November 1993 Elected mayor of Jerusalem, defeating longtime incumbent Teddy Kollek.

September 1996 Indicted with other Likud party members for illicit fund raising from corporate donors and for knowingly signing a false statement. Olmert is acquitted of the charges.

February 2003 Appointed deputy prime minister and minister of industry, trade and labor by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

December 2003 Throws his support behind Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza, retreating from his former assertions that high Arab birth rates are not a threat to Jewish democracy.

November 2005 Leaves Likud and follows Sharon to his newly formed centrist party, Kadima.

January 2006 – Becomes acting prime minister after Sharon suffers a debilitating stroke.

March 2006 Wins general elections and becomes prime minister.

July 2006 Wages a 34-day war against Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist group.

September 2006 Questioned by the State Comptroller’s office over suspicions of bribery after purchasing a property in Jerusalem for far less than market value.

January 2007 Questioned by investigators about whether, as finance minister, he used his influence to favor a friend in the sale of a large portion of the newly privatized Bank Leumi.

April 2007 Found ultimately responsible for the failures of the Lebanon war in the interim report by the Winograd Commission appointed to investigate the war’s failures; commission stops short of calling for his resignation. In the same month, the commissioner for standards in public life speaks out against Olmert’s activities during his term as industry minister, accusing him of a conflict of interest when a friend, Uri Messner, applied for government financial benefits.

October 2007 Diagnosed with non-terminal prostate cancer.

January 2008 Leadership during Lebanon War determined by the Winograd Commission’s final report to be conducted in good faith, despite serious failings and faulty decisions.

May 2008 Investigated by police for illegal fund raising, possible bribery and double billing overseas trips in the years before becoming prime minister. Olmert denies any wrongdoing but promises to resign if indicted.

July 2008 Accedes to calls for his ouster and announces he will resign the office of prime minister after Kadima primaries in September, allowing the party’s new leader to form a new government.

Israel political outlook uncertain as Olmert announces plan to resign

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Ehud Olmert’s announcement Wednesday that he will not seek re-election plunged Israel into deep political uncertainty at a time when the country faces several crucial diplomatic tests.

Confronted with police investigations into possible illegal fund-raising activities and a climate of intense political hostility, including from leading members of his own party, the Israeli prime minister held a hastily assembled news conference Wednesday evening to announce he will resign the premiership.

The change will take effect once Olmert’s party, Kadima, chooses a new leader in primary elections scheduled for mid-September. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz are the leading contenders for that spot.

Olmert announcement video from JerusalemOnline/Israel Channel 2 News

“Things got out of all reasonable proportion,” Olmert said in his speech, referring to what he called “ceaseless attacks” against him. “The prime minister is not above the law, but he is not by any means under it.”

Maintaining his innocence, Olmert said he would step aside for the public good.

“The time has come for me to take a decision,” Olmert said. “What is more important than what: my own personal justice or the public good?”

In the short term, Olmert’s announcement means he will stay in office as a lame duck until Kadima elects a new leader – either Sept. 17, when the party’s primary will be held, or Sept. 24, when a runoff, if necessary, will take place.

After that, Kadima’s new leader will become the acting prime minister and be charged with assembling a coalition government.

Failure to muster a majority of at least 61 Knesset members in the coalition would trigger new general elections.

Aside from casting a cloud of uncertainty over political succession, the development raised questions about how Israel’s major diplomatic initiatives will fare during this period of political transition – including peace tracks with the Palestinians and with Syria, and the effort to halt Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

At the time of the announcement, Livni was meeting in Washington with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss those issues. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who heads the Labor Party,  also was out of the country, on a plane on his way home from meetings in Washington.

Israeli pundits speculated that the absence from the country of Livni and Barak, two of Olmert’s main political adversaries, was a factor in the timing of the prime minister’s announcement.

Barak could trigger new general elections by pulling his Labor Party out of the governing coalition, but he lags behind Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in polls showing Netanyahu would handily win a general election if held today.

The method of Olmert’s departure from the political stage ensures that his successor from Kadima will be able to run for the next general election as an incumbent prime minister, possibly giving that candidate a boost.

Olmert said Wednesday that he would not mettle in the Kadima Party primary and that he sought to engender a respectful and fair political transition.

The prime minister had been under a cloud of investigations almost since his first day in office. He assumed the position of acting prime minister in January 2006 after then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon became disabled from a coma. Olmert won elections to retain the premiership in March of that year.

But the latest scandal, in which an American Jewish businessman named Morris Talansky testified that he gave Olmert $150,000 in cash over the course of the decade and a half before Olmert became prime minister, crippled Olmert’s ability to govern.

Even Olmert’s decision to re-launch Turkish-mediated peace talks with Syria and sign a cease-fire deal with Hamas in Gaza were viewed with suspicion by some who derided the moves as ploys to ensure Olmert’s political survival.

Since the Talansky scandal broke, a growing chorus of Israeli pundits, Knesset members and public intellectuals had called on Olmert to step aside, if only to allow the government to focus on the urgent threat of a nuclear Iran.

It’s not immediately clear how Olmert’s resignation will affect Israel’s campaign to stop Iran from getting the bomb.

Olmert seen as lackluster at Paris

PARIS (JTA) — As a career politician with a love for the urbane, Ehud Olmert might have been expected to shine at the Union for the Mediterranean conference on Sunday.

But the Israeli prime minister, faced with a spiraling corruption scandal at home, appeared subdued — some said defeated — during this week’s gathering of dozens of world leaders in Paris.

The frisson of speculation that the summit might see a first face-to-face encounter between Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad fizzled when Assad smilingly and repeatedly sidestepped the Israeli leader.

Nonetheless Assad, having been invited to Paris largely as a result of the recent public launch of indirect peace talks with Israel, made the most of an unusual welcome by a leading Western country.

The French media feted Syria’s dictator and first lady while Olmert, having left his wife, Aliza, in Jerusalem, cut a far lonelier figure at the Grand Palais.

Israeli pundits were unsparing in their censure.

One newspaper cartoon showed Olmert, whom police now suspect of bilking the state by double billing travel expenses for himself and his family, among other allegations, begging for change on the Champs Elysees.

“Syria threw Olmert a fetid bone and received in exchange half the kingdom,” Sever Plocker wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. “Assad was received at the Mediterranean countries’ conference in Paris as a victorious hero, while Olmert was received as a loser and a guest who forced his presence on everyone.”

Such fierce critiques once might have drawn counter-fire from Olmert, who denies breaking the law and insists his diplomatic initiatives with Syria and the Palestinians are the best way to win peace and security for Israel.

But unlike in previous trips abroad, Olmert largely avoided his own media entourage. He delivered a brief statement on the flight out from Tel Aviv but took no questions. In Paris, he gave no news conferences or background briefings.

Famously a fitness freak, Olmert decided against taking his morning run at the gym of the lavish Crillon Hotel.

“He’s been looking tired,” an aide said by way of explanation.

Bereft of fresh material, several Israeli journalists wondered at the sudden silence of a man who long had appeared to relish the tussle of open debate. The consensus was that he did not want to face uncomfortable questions about his legal situation, but there was also an underlying sense of regret.

“Perhaps we overdid it?” one TV reporter murmured, apparently in reference to the coverage of the scandal that erupted in May over Olmert’s financial ties to American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky.

A political commentator from a major Israeli Web site shrugged and said, “Look, we were too easy on Sharon, and look what happened after the Gaza pullout. We should have been tougher back then. We have to be tough now.”

A newspaper correspondent who speaks regularly with Olmert said the prime minister remains defiant. But the journalist added, “I can’t imagine how he’s going to find a way out of this mess, and my sense is he knows this, too.”

Olmert has vowed to resign if indicted. A sooner exit could come in the form of a September primary election in his Kadima Party.

In a move unusual for an incumbent, Olmert has not said whether he intends to try to keep the party helm. Political sources said he first wants to see if his lawyers can undermine Talansky under cross-examination, which might boost his domestic standing.

Polls suggest the Kadima vote would be won by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who accompanied Olmert to Paris but rarely appeared by his side.

Asked about the prime minister’s conduct during the trip, a senior aide, his eyes bleary from fatigue, shrugged and said simply, “He’s a man who always weighs his options.”

Video headlines from Israel: 2008-07-11 — Did Olmert double-bill? Shalit talks continue

Video headlines from Israel: 2008-07-11—Did Olmert double-bill? Shalit talks continue

American donor deposed in Olmert probe, Carter spills nuclear bomb beans

N.Y. Financier Deposed in Olmert Case

Israeli prosecutors deposed American businessman Morris Talansky as part of the corruption probe of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Talansky, who was detained by police during a Passover visit to Israel, appeared at Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday to answer questions about his ties to the prime minister.

He testified to giving Olmert cash gifts amounting to approximately $150,000 while he was in previous government posts but denied that this constituted bribery.

“I never expected anything personally. I never had any personal benefits from this relationship whatsoever,” the New York-based financier said, according to courtroom reporters.

When the case came to light this month, Olmert described Talansky’s contributions as financing for successful 1993 and 1998 campaigns to be elected Jerusalem mayor and his failed 2003 run to lead the Likud Party.

Israeli media have reported that as much as $500,000 in money Olmert received from Talansky is unaccounted for. Israeli law limits political funding from foreign sources.

Olmert has vowed to resign if indicted in the Talansky case.

Talansky’s testimony, designated as a “preliminary deposition” by prosecutors, is a condition for him being allowed to return home. He was expected to leave Israel this week.

Carter Says Israel Has 150 Atomic Weapons

Jimmy Carter, in violation of a decades-old U.S. policy, publicly acknowledged that Israel has nuclear weapons.

The former U.S. president, asked during an appearance at a British literary festival Sunday about Western efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program, listed existing atomic arsenals.

“The U.S. has more than 12,000 nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union has about the same, Great Britain and France have several hundred and Israel has 150 or more,” he told the audience, according to a transcript of the event.

The comments raised eyebrows in Israel, which since the Nixon administration has enjoyed “don’t ask, don’t tell” understandings in Washington regarding its nonconventional military capabilities.

Jerusalem officials, having largely shunned Carter during a recent visit in which he tried to broker talks between Israel and Hamas, declined comment on his new statements.

Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, former chief of Israel’s military intelligence, suggested Carter may have spoken in response to feeling “offended” at the cold shoulder he got from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government.

“The problem is that there are those who can use these statements when it comes to discussing the international effort to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons,” Zeevi-Farkash told Israel Radio.

U.S. Genetic Law Enacted

President Bush enacted a law that protects patients from discrimination based on genetic information.

Jewish groups, including Hadassah and United Jewish Communities, the federations’ umbrella organization, had led lobbying for the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which was signed into law May 21.

The bill bans health providers from refusing service because of genetic mutations and bans employers from discriminating on the basis of such disorders. Fears of such discrimination have kept many Americans from being tested for such mutations, inhibiting research.

“GINA represents proper public policy that is keeping pace with the rapidly evolving area of genetics research,” a Hadassah statement said. “With the mapping of the human genome, we are now in an era that holds unprecedented promise for treating and curing disease.”

Druckman Fired From Conversion Authority

The beleaguered head of Israel’s state Conversion Authority was fired.

Rabbi Haim Druckman’s contract will not be renewed when it expires at the end of next month, the prime minister’s office announced May 22. The office cited the rabbi’s age, 75, as the reason — civil servants have mandatory retirement at the age of 67.

Druckman, however, already was in his 70s when he was hired four years ago.

Druckman told Army Radio that his firing was due to the government succumbing to political pressure by the ultra-Orthodox, or Charedim.

The High Rabbinical Court last month invalidated a conversion performed by Druckman, calling into doubt thousands of conversions performed by Druckman or performed under the authority of the Conversion Authority.

The authority was formed to ease the conversion process, especially for the many Israelis from the former Soviet Union who made aliyah under the Law of Return, even though they were not Jewish according to Jewish law.

The Conference of European Rabbis announced last week that it would not recognize conversions performed by rabbis in Israel, mentioning Druckman by name.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.