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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A majority of Israelis want Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign or go on leave over a bribery scandal and do not believe his denials of wrongdoing, an opinion poll showed on Monday.
The survey in Israel's biggest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, was the first to gauge the public mood since a court gag order in the case was partially lifted on Thursday and Olmert went on television to profess his innocence.
According to the poll, 59 percent of Israelis believe Olmert should resign or temporarily leave office until a police investigation into the suspicions is complete and 33 percent want him to stay.
Sixty percent of the 500 people surveyed said they did not believe Olmert's statement that he did not "put money in his pocket" and doubted he could lead peace efforts while under investigation. Twenty-two percent said they believed him.
The poll found that 41 percent of those surveyed regarded Olmert's deputy, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, as best suited to replace him as head of the centrist Kadima party should he resign. Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz came a distant second.
Legal sources say police suspect that Olmert took hundreds of thousands of dollars from New York Jewish financier Morris Talansky over a decade in coded payments.
Olmert, pledging to resign if indicted, said any funds from Talansky were contributions to two campaigns he waged for Jerusalem mayor in the 1990s and for posts in his former political party, Likud, in 1999 and 2002.
Israeli law broadly prohibits political donations of more than a few hundred dollars.
With Livni as its leader, the survey showed, Kadima would edge right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party in an early election, taking 27 of parliament's 120 seats to 23 seats for Likud -- a gap within the poll's four percent margin of error.
Israeli political commentators have voiced doubts that Kadima, founded in 2005 by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon before he suffered a stroke that left him comatose, would remain intact in a political scandal.
The poll indicated growing public support for Netanyahu, a former prime minister, with 37 percent of the respondents naming him as their choice to lead Israel's government compared with 30 percent in a previous survey in February.
Olmert has pressed on with his duties, chairing the weekly cabinet meeting and shifting his public focus towards a visit later in the week by U.S. President George W. Bush to celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary and promote peacemaking.
Bush arrives in Israel on Wednesday amid deep scepticism over whether Washington can achieve its goal of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before the president leaves office in January.
The White House has played down the possible impact of the scandal, insisting Olmert is not the only leader committed to the peace process with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
But Palestinian officials acknowledge privately that Olmert's troubles could derail statehood talks, especially if Israel held a snap election ahead of a national vote due only in 2010.