JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israel ordered a criminal graft probe of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over a real estate deal on Monday, in the latest scandal to hit the premier who had been steadily regaining popularity.
Attorney General Menahem Mazuz "has decided to order the police to open a criminal probe in the Cremieux Street affair," a justice ministry statement said.
The Israeli premier is suspected of having received an effective bribe when he and his wife purchased the west Jerusalem home in 2004 for an estimated 300,000 dollars below market price, the statement said.
In return, Olmert's associates are alleged to have helped the firm that refurbished the property to gain construction permits from Jerusalem city hall, which Olmert headed as mayor between 1993 and 2003.
The announcement came as the 61-year-old premier was seeing his approval ratings climb -- an opinion poll released last week said 35 percent of Israelis rated his performance as "good" -- up from the single digits where they languished for months.
The popularity of the man hailed as one of Israel's most able politicians when he officially assumed office in May 2006 has taken a battering as a result of last year's Lebanon war and a string of graft scandals to have hit the Israeli leadership under his watch.
These have included a sex scandal involving former president Moshe Katsav and a sexual harassment conviction of close Olmert aide Haim Ramon, who stepped down as justice minister over the charges and today is deputy prime minister.
Another investigation into alleged widescale corruption in the nation's tax authority has forced the resignation of Olmert's personal secretary and close aide of 30 years, Shula Zaken.
And former finance minister Avraham Hirshson resigned from his post in early July amid a months-long police investigation over claims that millions of dollars were embezzled from a labour union he once headed.
In a separate statement on Monday, Mazuz said he intended to indict Hirshson for aggravated theft and fraud in the affair.
Olmert, who was cleared in March 2006 of any wrongdoing in another property deal, denied the new allegations against him on Monday and said he would cooperate with the inquiry.
"We are sure and completely certain that the process of purchasing the Olmert family apartment on Cremieux Streets was innocent and correct," Olmert's office said in a statement.
"We regret the decision to continue the investigation," it added, but said the "prime minister will fully cooperate with the investigation in order to bring about its swift closure."
"We are certain that its outcome will show that the purchase of the apartment by the Olmert family was done in a correct and legal manner and at a fair price," it said.
Olmert already faces another criminal probe into his alleged abuse of influence in the privatisation of the country's second-largest bank, Bank Leumi, when he was acting finance minister in 2005.
The prime minister was also the subject of several corruption investigations last year involving property deals and appointments, but no other charges have been filed against him.
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