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.
Before we warn Olmert to avoid allowing the door to slam behind him, we should remember something: there is a good chance the prime minister will remain in office for rather longer than many people might like. If the next leader of Kadima fails to put together a coalition after the September 17 primaries, which could very well happen, then there will be general elections. Since elections could take place as late as March 2009, Olmert might be with us for another eight months. Meanwhile, as prime minister he has immunity in the face of criminal prosecution which, as the police acknowledge, complicates their investigation.
So what could possibly have compelled Mr. Olmert to say goodbye at last? He refused to resign when his approval ratings hovered around 3 percent for months after the Second Lebanon War. He ignored the political backstabbing from within his own coalition. He was unmoved when prominent author Meir Shalev, speaking at a massive protest gathering in Rabin Square after the release of the Interim Winograd Report, said, “Ehud Olmert, remember when you said you work for us? Well, Mr. Olmert, you are fired!”
So why now, just after his lawyers succeeded in making Talansky look so bad?
According to a prominent Israeli political affairs reporter, the reports about Olmert’s corruption leaked so far are just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. In response to my observation that Israeli politicians are so corrupt that it often seems as though the country is run by Tammany Hall, he said, “If you think this is just another case of petty corruption — like Bibi allowing a rich London Jew to finance his hotel stay — then you could not be more wrong. The man is unbelievably corrupt, from top to bottom.”
When I repeated this remark to a former senior employee of the prime minister’s office, he responded with a cynical shrug and a telling anecdote about something Olmert did when he was minister of Health. At the time, a wealthy businessman friend of Olmert’s purchased the license to import a popular product that was marketed in the United States as an aid to weight loss. But Israeli ministry of health regulations forbade labeling the product as a weight loss aid, which meant it was unlikely to achieve high sales. To help his friend, Olmert allegedly changed three different regulations, thus making it possible to label the product as a weight loss aid.
Come September, Kadima will choose a new leader from the following candidates: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni; Minister of Security (and former head of the Shin Bet) Avi Dichter; and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz (former IDF Chief of Staff).
Tzipi Livni is known for her integrity, but lacks experience in coalition building. Avi Dichter lacks experience in foreign affairs and in domestic politics. Shaul Mofaz failed the officer’s examination several times when he was in the IDF; he is known as a man lacking in both humor and compassion — as well as experience. Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party, was widely considered one of the worst prime ministers in Israel’s history when he was voted out of office in 1999. Unfortunately his replacement, Labor party leader Ehud Barak, managed to trump Bibi in the disastrous leadership department.
Which leaves many of us wondering gloomily: is there anyone to fill the leadership vacuum in Israeli politics?