It could be weeks, or even months. But Ehud Olmert’s political fate is sealed. Even if the nauseating revelations in Morris Talansky’s testimony fail to result in a formal indictment, Olmert has passed the point of no return in the court of public opinion, which has determined that he must go.
The displays of excessive venality and abuse of power were the final straw. Furious Israelis will not forgive the prime minister for accepting “gifts” of cash in envelopes, without receipts, in an obvious attempt to conceal how the money was spent. There is also an enormous upsurge of rage concerning his use of funds for personal gratification.
Israelis become infuriated when they hear that their politicians are exploiting their positions to obtain flamboyant perks such as upgrading from business to first-class air travel, or utilizing expensive hotels for luxurious family vacations.
Even if the funds were personal “gifts” from Talansky, that would not square with Olmert’s assurance to the nation that the cash received was used exclusively for election purposes. Likewise, even if future cross-examination were to expose weaknesses in Talansky’s testimony, Olmert could not survive politically.
Not that Talansky emerges as a noble reformer exposing corruption. There is an aura of sleaze about this man who has turned against his former friend – purportedly to promote the welfare of the Jewish people.
While most Israelis will welcome Olmert’s impending departure, it is awful that the downfall of yet another political leader should be associated with the stench of corruption. Had he resigned after the debacle of the Second Lebanon War, he could at least have retained a semblance of dignity – sparing himself and the nation shame, disgrace and pain.
Let us not delude ourselves. The rot extends far beyond the person of the prime minister. Leaders of both Labor and Likud, either directly or via their acolytes, have brazenly indulged in illegal fundraising. Accepting “personal gifts” from both wealthy Diaspora Jews and Israelis has become the accepted norm. Even the late president Ezer Weizmann was obliged, in 2000, to resign for accepting gifts from friends.
Olmert’s hedonistic inclinations and ostentatious consumerism are shared by many of his political peers and their predecessors. In fact, the allegations against Olmert pale when compared to the far more serious charges of embezzlement of millions directed against his former finance minister, Avraham Hirschson.
However, we should recall that in his early years, Olmert did command respect.
At 28 he was the youngest member of Knesset. He even, ironically enough, developed a reputation as a crusader against corruption and crime. He was a successful fundraiser and networker. His sociability and engaging personality made him the consummate politician, able to create unique political alliances. He was loyal to his supporters and always tried to help his mates – to the extent that it sometimes rebounded against him. He made a distinguished contribution as health minister.
Together with many others, I personally supported him when he stood for election as mayor of Jerusalem on the platform of a united Jerusalem.
His failure can be attributed to a lack of moral fiber and a penchant for crass political opportunism, exemplified by his fervent encouragement of Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement, which enabled him to become prime minister – and also paved the way for his downward spiral, which reached in his nadir in the disastrous Lebanon War.
Unfortunately for Olmert, the public exposure of his hedonism takes place not only in the wake of his political failures but also at a time when the accumulation of resentment and rage against galloping corruption from the previous decade has reached a boiling point.
In retrospect, it is now clear that double standards were applied to Shas leader Aryeh Deri earlier, when he was sentenced to jail for breaches of the law that pale in significance compared to the recent exposures of corruption.
Questions are now also being raised as to why big fish like Ariel Sharon were not indicted in relation to the Greek Island affair. In contrast, small fry like Naomi Blumenthal received a draconian jail sentence (subsequently commuted) for merely having paid the overnight hotel bill for some of her supporters.
Only when Omri Sharon began serving time in jail did it finally dawn on politicians that the party was over.
The reality is that until recently, the dysfunctional political system encouraged many initially honest politicians to indulge in corrupt practices. When breaching the law to raise party funds became the norm, it was inevitable that some of the cash would ultimately find its way into the pockets of individuals.
Proportional representation denies electors the possibility of rewarding or punishing politicians. Likewise primaries – theoretically the most democratic means of choosing candidates – in practice encourage political aspirants to appeal to the lowest common denominator as well as engage in illegal fundraising to garner support from the vast number of voters needed.
The British system obliges ministers to take responsibility and resign when their professional civil servants fail. By contrast, in Israel, Olmert was able to resist the calls for his resignation even after the debacle of the Second Lebanon war.
The good tidings are that public corruption is today in retreat. It is a healthy sign when the highest officers of the land are aware that they will be judged more harshly than the average citizen. The positive fallout from this Olmert scandal is that it is highly unlikely that politicians will in future dare to illegally solicit or accept funds from wealthy Jews to promote their own political careers or satisfy their lust to emulate the mega-rich.
That Olmert has lost the confidence of the nation is beyond dispute. Like any citizen, he must be presumed legally innocent until convicted, and he is entitled to his day in court. But in the absence of focus or moral authority, his refusal to step down is unconscionable and reminiscent of former president Moshe Katzav, who was ultimately forced to back down.
But unlike Katzav, Olmert is engaged in delicate negotiations which have chilling life-and-death implications on five fronts – Palestinian, Syrian, Iranian, that of Hizbullah and that of Hamas. It is surrealistic to have a leader determining whether to go to war or cede national assets, when any initiative he undertakes is perceived as seeking to divert attention from his own problems. Indeed, his own political survival may directly conflict with the requirements of the nation.
It reflects on Olmert’s mind-set that he fails to appreciate the obscenity of clinging to power under such circumstances.
The coalition, especially members of Kadima, cannot permit Ehud Olmert to continue conducting the affairs of state until the Talansky cross-examination. He could cause untold damage. It is scandalous that he is continuing to travel to Washington and carrying on business as usual.
They must demand that he step down or suspend himself immediately. Should he shamelessly refuse, they must throw him out, or they will bring upon themselves the wrath of voters on the day of reckoning – election day.
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