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Israel's 60th anniversary marred by fraud probe

Latest update : 2008-05-07

While ceremonies kicked off in Jerusalem on Wednesday to celebrate the foundation of the state in 1948, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is presiding over the festivities, was at the centre of a fraud investigation.

Israel commemorated its fallen soldiers and launched week-long festivities on the eve of its 60th anniversary on Wednesday, although the country is torn by a political crisis that cast doubts over the future of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Olmert, who is fighting off calls to step down over fresh corruption allegations, marked Remembrance Day with a call to fight for the survival of the Jewish state -- a nation shaped by conflict.

"We remember our children who fought and gave their lives so Israel can live," Olmert said in a radio broadcast.

"We commit ourselves to keep their memory alive, to fight for the survival of the state and to work for a better future," he said.

"We reach our hand out for peace, but we are also ready to use our weapons," said Olmert, commemorating the 22,437 soldiers killed in action and the 1,634 civilians who have died in militant attacks since May 1948.

The sombre commemoration turned into a joyous celebration at sunset, when Israel kicked off its birthday bash to mark its creation in 1948. Singers and dancers performed on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem as Israelis stocked up for traditional picnics and barbecues. "The air will be thick with barbecue smoke", said FRANCE 24's correspondent Annette Young from Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, the political establishment braced for a potential shakeup amid calls for Olmert to resign or at least step aside pending the outcome of the latest investigation.

Judicial authorities slapped a gag order over the case but allowed publication of the fact that the state prosecutor's office wants to depose a foreign national who is the key witness in allegations against Olmert.

Anti-fraud investigators questioned Olmert for an hour on Friday at his official residence in Jerusalem.

The PM is already the subject of three police inquiries into suspected corruption involving potential conflicts of interest, fraudulent property transactions and abuse of power in connection with political appointments.

Olmert has denied any wrongdoing and insisted he will continue his duties as premier, but in a rare step he has cancelled all interviews he traditionally grants local media ahead of Israel's anniversary celebrations.

Olmert dismisses any suggestion that he may be on the ropes, and hit back at what he called a "hysterical" campaign against him.

But his coalition partners are getting edgy.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned on Tuesday that his Labour party "must take into account the fact that in our current political situation the next elections could be called unexpectedly, and we have to be prepared.

"If it is as serious as is speculated here in the local media, it will have enormous consequences, not to mention on the very sensitive negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians," said Annette Young.

Meanwhile, security forces were on high alert amid concerns Palestinian militants could launch attacks during the celebrations, and authorities imposed a security lockdown on the West Bank until midnight (2100 GMT) on Thursday.

The Palestinians mark the anniversary of Israel's creation by remembering the 700,000 or so of their fellow citizens who fled or were forced from their homes as the Jewish state was created and who, with their descendants, now form a UN-registered refugee population of more than 4.4 million.

Date created : 2008-05-07