Israel's Livni Calls On Olmert To Step Down

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JERUSALEM — Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Thursday called on the country's embattled prime minister to step down immediately in light of growing signs that he will soon be indicted on corruption charges.

The announcement came a day after Israel's attorney general said he was considering filing charges against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for allegedly double billing Jewish groups for trips abroad. He wants Olmert to appear at a special hearing before making a final decision on whether to prosecute and put Olmert on trial.

Olmert has already said that he will step down after elections scheduled in February. But at a meeting of the ruling Kadima party Thursday, Livni said he should go before that. His departure would clear the way for Livni to become acting prime minister until the election.

"The prime minister, like any other person in Israel, is innocent until proven guilty. But the citizen Ehud Olmert must wage his battle to prove his innocence from his home and not from the chair of the prime minister," Livni said, at special party meeting she called.

"The prime minister has to go on vacation, there is no other option," she said.

Olmert's office did not react, but has said that the prime minister plans to stay in office until the elections.

Livni was recently elected to succeed Olmert as Kadima leader. After initial polls showed her running neck-and-neck with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Livni has recently dropped far behind him.

Her attack on Olmert, who is widely unpopular, may have been an attempt to jump start her faltering campaign.

The double billing scandal is one of a half-dozen corruption affairs Olmert has had to face during his nearly three years in power. Olmert also has been accused of improperly taking tens of thousands of dollars from a U.S. businessman, involvement in questionable real estate deals and making controversial political appointments.

If Attorney General Meni Mazuz decides to file charges, Olmert would become the first Israeli prime minister to ever be indicted.

Olmert has denied all wrongdoing. But the turmoil has hampered Olmert's Mideast peace efforts.

Mazuz's announcement on Wednesday came just hours after Olmert returned from a trip to Washington to meet President George W. Bush.

In a radio interview, Olmert spokesman Amir Dan said the prosecution set up an "ambush."

Olmert's office said the announcement had no legal significance and there was no reason for him to step down.