The police investigation of Israel’s prime minister Ehud Olmert on suspicion of taking bribes as mayor Jerusalem almost a decade ago is the latest of Israel’s woes. Tongues have been wagging since last Friday, May 2, when police questioning of the prime minister was shrouded in mystery by a court gag order.
After the order was partially lifted Thursday night, the prime minister went on television to tell the nation he had never taken bribes, the moneys given him were for political campaigning and he would not quit as prime minister unless he was indicted by the state attorney.
When Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by two strokes in early 2006, Olmert stepped into his shoes declaring his allegiance to the ailing prime minister and his path. But in the years 1993 to 2002, the period of the suspicions against him, he was one of Sharon’s fiercest opponents, who did his best to defeat him as leader of their Likud party.
In early 2001, after unseating Labor leader Ehud Barak (current defense minister) in a general election, Sharon formed a new government, in which he refused to appoint his rival Olmert finance minister, giving the choice portfolio to Binyamin Netanyahu (current leader of the opposition).
He offered Olmert the less appealing trade, commerce and labor ministry. When Olmert complained, Sharon decided to keep the peace within the party by making him acting prime minister. Sharon and his inner circle and closest political adviser, his son Omri Sharon, regarded this as an empty title, never imagining that Olmert had the slightest chance of becoming prime minister.
They were wrong. When Sharon was struck down in early 2006, Olmert stepped in as acting prime minister and went on to lead the Kadima party, which Sharon had meanwhile formed, in the February 2006 general election. Kadima emerged as the leading party and Olmert was crowned prime minister more or less by default.
The first thing he did was to wield a large broom and sweep Sharon’s allies out of government and party positions of influence, starting with Sharon’s son Omri.
The Omri Sharon precedent
Meanwhile, the past came back to haunt Omri Sharon. He was charged with illegally raising funds eight years ago for his father to fight off Olmert’s challenge for the Likud party leadership in violation of the party financing law.
In April 2008, after due process, he was convicted and sentenced to nine months jail for offences which strongly resemble the purported allegations for which Olmert is currently under investigation.
Because of this history, the political establishment this week pronounced Ehud Olmert a dead man and showed him the door. The Omri Sharon case is a precedent that leaves any Israeli court of justice no choice but to convict.
This scandal clouded and dominated the celebration of Israel’s 60th anniversary of its Independence Thursday, May 8, to the exclusion of the dire woes hanging over the country from Iran’s nuclear aspirations, Hamas’ rocket offensive against a whole region in the southwest of the country and the drums of war resonating from Damascus and the Lebanese Hizballah.
The big question on every lip was would the prime minister step down or suspend himself before or after US President George W. Bush arrives Wednesday, May 14, to honor Israel’s jubilee.
Another mystery is the path by which the incriminating evidence against him reached police hands.
Only five people were privy to the financial arrangements sustaining the top contenders in the Likud primaries of 2000: Sharon – father and son, on the one hand, and Olmert and his confidential personal assistant for 30 years, Mrs. Shula Zaken, and the partner in his law practice, Uri Messer.
In court, Omri did not deny the charges against him, only arguing that the law was unrealistically strict. He also gave the police their first leads, supplemented later by further investigation and testimony relevant to the fund-raising practices pursued at the time by the leading party contenders, including Olmert.
But the most incriminating materials were supplied by the State Controller, ex-Justice Micha Lindenstrauss. He used the information from Omri Sharon for an exhaustive probe into Olmert’s suspected financial shenanigans.
The police built up the dossier amid a depth of secrecy unusual in Israel. Messer was interrogated and provided more incriminating materials.
But still, the case against the prime minister was short of one last piece of solid evidence, direct testimony from one of the donors who put up the illicit funds.
Enter another key witness
Although Olmert’s instincts are sharp – they have saved him from indictments in four corruption cases against him which are still open, he failed this time to appreciate how much evidence against him had accumulated and awaited.
In the third week of April, the millionaire financier Rabbi Morris Talansky, CEO of Global Resources Group, a former trustee of Yeshiva University and contributor to many charities, arrived to spend the Passover festival with his two sons who live in Israel.
Talansky is also the US contact for the American branch of the New Jerusalem Foundation, an organization which Olmert founded as mayor of Jerusalem.
The foundation started off on the wrong foot in 1999 when it raised $4.5 million before it was registered as a nonprofit organization and opened its books to the public.
When Talansky landed in Tel Aviv from New York, he received a surprise welcome from the Israeli police.
With no reason to conceal his contributions to Olmert, he was willing to provide the testimony for sealing the criminal prosecution against the prime minister and his assistant.
As debkafile reported on May 6 (See HOT POINTS below), even if Ehud Olmert is finally acquitted of all charges at the end of a trial that could go on for years, popular opprobrium and the air of corruption clinging to him makes it impossible for him to continue in public office.
Livni and Barak may lean on each other
One realistic scenario at this point is for the foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who is also acting prime minister, to strike a deal with Kadima’s partner, Labor leader and defense minister Ehud Barak, for her appointment as provisional prime minister after Olmert steps down. The two will then rotate the premiership between them.
The other option is an early general election before the end of the year.
Barak would dearly love to first merge his Labor party with elements of Kadima and other factions to form a centrist bloc capable of fighting Likud and its leader Binyamin Netanyahu in a general election.
As things stand today, all the polls show Likud winning a general election and Kadima’s 27 seats being wiped out, while Labor would sustain its present strength of 19 seats, less than one-fifth of the Knesset. Neither party can hope to stand alone.
These calculations are based on known factors. But in Israeli politics, imponderables often lurk beyond the horizon and ambush the safest forecasts.
Olmert’s debacle is a good example.