Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz came to his leader’s defense Thursday, rebuffing criticism by former prime minister Ehud Olmert who charged that in showing preference for Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the US elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had damaged the US-Israel relationship.

Calling Olmert’s accusation “absurd,” Steinitz advised him “not to interfere in the elections in Israel and certainly not with statements that may cause damage to the State of Israel.”

In an interview to Israel Radio, Steinitz added that the “excellent” relations with the US would continue and that security and economic cooperation had improved in recent years.

On Wednesday, Olmert questioned Israel’s ability to maintain strong ties with the Obama administration in light of Netanyahu’s perceived favoritism in the tight US election race.

“Following what Netanyahu did in the last few months, the question arises of whether or not our prime minister has a friend in the White House,” Olmert said in a meeting with New York Jewish leaders.

Olmert said that while the Israeli head of state is allowed to have a personal preference for one candidate over another, it would be “better, obviously, if he kept it to himself.”

“What took place this time was a breaking of all the rules, when our prime minister intervened in the US elections in the name of an American billionaire with a clear interest in the vote,” Olmert continued. “The very same billionaire used Israel’s prime minister to advance a nominee of his own for president.”

Olmert’s words were a clear reference to Jewish-American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who according to reports donated some $100 million to Romney’s failed campaign. Adelson also owns the Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom, which is largely perceived as a stalwart backer of Netanyahu.

In September, clips of Netanyahu speaking about the Iranian nuclear threat were used in Romney campaign ads targeting the Jewish vote in Florida.

On Wednesday morning, hours after Obama’s victory speech, Shas’s Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai had told journalists that this had “not been a very good morning” for Netanyahu.

Still, US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro on Thursday denied that tension exists between the two heads of state. Shapiro said their relationship was an open one and that in the nine meetings the two men held over the years, discussions were positive and constructive; he was certain, Shapiro told Israel Radio, that they would continue in that vein.

Shapiro acknowledged differences between the president and the prime minister on the timing of when to go to new phases of a response to Iran’s nuclear drive, but said these were the routine “differences between friends,” and that both sides strive to find the common ground to move forward together. Refusing to answer “political” questions and striving to avoid directly answering repeated questions about Obama’s attitude to Netanyahu personally, the ambassador said Obama regarded Netanyahu as “the elected leader” of a key US ally, with whom maintaining the closest relationship is an important US interest.

On Wednesday Shapiro ruled out the possibility that Obama would harbor ill will toward Netanyahu for the latter’s perceived support for Romney. “Anyone who knows the president understands that this is not how he thinks,” Shapiro said, adding that talk of revenge against Israel for Netanyahu’s political preferences was “ridiculous.”

Olmert, meanwhile, also reportedly criticized Netanyahu for his handling of the Palestinian issue, which he said is the most important item on the agenda ahead of the Israeli elections. He stressed that in order for a peace agreement to be reached, the prime minister must be personally involved in negotiations instead of sending emissaries.

“Time is running out for us, not the Palestinians,” said Olmert, stressing that the international community was losing patience with Israel.

Addressing reports of his possible return to politics, Olmert said he would announce whether he would run in the upcoming elections, scheduled for January 22, upon his return to Israel.

The former prime minister still faces possible legal obstacles that could derail a potential return to public life. In September he was sentenced by the Jerusalem District Court to a suspended year-long jail term and a NIS 75,000 (some $19,000) fine, following his landmark conviction for a breach-of-trust charge in the so-called Investment Center scandal, but was cleared in two other major cases against him.

On Wednesday, the State Attorney’s Office filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, aiming to overturn Olmert’s acquittal in the two cases and to mete out a more severe sentence in the one case in which he was convicted. In addition, Olmert still faces charges for allegedly taking bribes in the Holyland real estate scandal, when he served as mayor of Jerusalem.