In the end, it was fear rather than shame that caused Ehud Olmert to announce his resignation. In a speech that was broadcast live at the top of yesterday’s evening news hour, the Israeli prime minister announced that he would not be a candidate in the September 17 internal elections for Kadima, the party he now leads. He added that he would resign after the new party leader was chosen.
Olmert has been under criminal investigation for graft and corruption since the beginning of May. Israel’s political analysts are pretty much unanimous in assuming that Olmert finally decided to resign when he realized that the police might very well have sufficient evidence to send him to jail, rather than merely run him out of office. Previously, Olmert had said that he would resign if he were indicted on criminal charges.
Olmert is under investigation for allegedly accepting around $150,000 in cash payments delivered in envelopes by Long Island businessman Morris (Moshe) Talansky, over a period of more than a decade. Talansky claims to have believed the money was meant for campaign funding. The police claim the money was never used for political campaigns; so far, there have been allegations that Olmert used the money for personal expenses or that Talansky was in fact paying a bribe for political connections to advance his business interests.
The investigation, which was leaked in almost its entirety to the Israeli media, further revealed that Olmert may have accepted several hundred thousand dollars more from Talansky, via his former law partner Uri Messer. In one of many leaked interrogation transcripts, Messer confirmed that he kept the cash Olmert had received from Talansky in his office safe.
Last week Talansky completed several grueling days of testimony under the sharp tongue of Eli Zohar, who heads Olmert’s very expensive legal team; Zohar, who is one of the most famous attorneys in Israel — which makes one wonder who is paying for all this — managed to tarnish Talansky’s credibility significantly. The wealthy septuagenarian repeatedly said he could not remember various incidents; he also pleaded exhaustion on several occasions during the testimony. (Olmert also hired top PR advisor Amir Dan — who, in turn, hired the services of top advertising firm McCann Erickson’s Tel Aviv offices.)
More recently, the police leaked documents that appeared to show Olmert had, since 1991, double-and-triple billed various public bodies for work-related trips abroad. Amongst the organizations named in the “Olmertours” investigation are Friends of the IDF and an organization for mentally disabled children. The police claim that Olmert used the surplus funds, acquired via fictitious invoices, to pay for the flights of his wife and grown children.
During last night’s resignation speech, as the cameras zoomed in for a close-up of Olmert’s red-rimmed, tear-filled eyes, the soon-to-be ex prime minister extolled his accomplishments. He also praised Israel’s democratic institutions, which did not differentiate between an ordinary citizen and the prime minister. In media follow up, Olmert’s advisors tried to make him look like Tony Blair. For most Israelis, however, the prime minister seems more like another Tony — Tony Soprano.