JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert denied fresh accusations that he illegally accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from a US citizen but said last night that he would step down if he is indicted.
The latest investigation into corruption allegations involving Olmert has distracted Israel for nearly a week and has the potential to derail delicate peace talks with the Palestinians.
Olmert made his statement in a nationally televised speech from his official residence after a court lifted a gag order in the case. According to police suspicions, Olmert took hundreds of thousands of dollars in illicit contributions from Jewish businessman Morris "Moshe" Talansky.
Army Radio said the suspicions concern money that Olmert is accused of receiving from 1999 to 2003, when he was mayor of Jerusalem and later minister of industry and trade.
Olmert said a lawyer handled his finances and everything was legal. "I am looking at all of you in the eye, and I say I never took bribes, I never took a penny for myself," he said.
But he said he would not fight to stay in office if he was charged.
"I was elected by you, citizens of Israel, to be the prime minister and I don't intend to shirk this responsibility. At the same time, and even though the law does not require me to do this, I will resign from my job if the attorney general decides to issue an indictment against me," he said.
This is the fifth high-profile probe involving the Israeli leader, whose popularity has badly suffered because of the repeated allegations. He has not been charged in any case, but even before the gag order was lifted Olmert's opponents were calling on him to resign.
While Olmert's office has predicted he will weather the latest storm, the case threatens to further weaken his hold on power and potentially torpedo formal peace talks with the Palestinians launched in November at a US-hosted peace conference.
The White House said the case would not alter President Bush's planned visit to Israel next week, calling the investigation "a matter for the Israeli judicial system."
"The president looks forward to traveling to the Middle East next week to continue to encourage the Israelis and Palestinians to work together for a two-state solution," said Gordon Johndroe, a White House aide.
Olmert said Talansky had made contributions to him for two mayoral campaigns for Jerusalem, one campaign for chairman of the Likud party, and another to cover campaign debt retroactively.
He said he, like any prime minister, is dealing "with important and sensitive issues which concern our existence as a people and as a state."
"I am sorry about the rough times that the public is going through, as are those who are close to me. I hope that this storm, too, shall pass with the same speed by which it was ignited," he said.