Master politician Ehud Olmert has just now had the rug pulled out from him with the public announcement at a press conference in Jerusalem by Defense Minister (and former Prime Minister) Ehud Barak, who called for Olmert’s resignation a day after dramatic testimony from an American-Jewish businessman who said he gave Olmert a total of some $150,000 in cash over a fifteen-year period.
There has so far been no “quid pro quo” indicating that Olmert actually promised or was asked to do something specific for the businessman, Morris Talansky, in exchange for this money — something that would be necessary to make it a criminal act. Further testimony is not expected until July. Olmert’s lawyers have said they were confident that they could rebut the businessman’s testimony at that time. But the firm revelation of this conduct, and its unsavory appearance, are enough to have undone Olmert’s position.
While earlier solicitations appear to have been for political campaigns, starting with Olmert’s campaign (Olmert was then a member of the Likud Party) to become mayor of Jerusalem in 1991-92, replacing Teddy Kolleck, the businessman said that Olmert increasingly requested money for his own personal expenses – a $25,000 vacation in Italy, or upgrading of his airlines reservations from business to first class, or his hotel rooms to suites, and so forth – rather than for campaign purposes.
Olmert liked luxury, and to live well, the businessman told the Court on Monday: “I only know that he loved expensive cigars. I know he loved pens, watches. I found it strange,” then shrugged.
Olmert also asked for the money as loans, the businessman testified Monday – but, these “loans” were never repaid, the businessman said.
In advance of the 2003 primaries, the businessman said, Olmert asked him for $72,500 – a sum that the businessman said he paid. It was the last payment he was willing to make, he testified.
Perhaps most damning, the businessman told the Court that Olmert asked for the money to be given in cash – a way of avoiding banking and reporting controls. On at least one occasion, the businessman paid with his own credit card a $4,700 hotel bill run up by Olmert – which would also not show up on any monitoring of such transactions.
And, Olmert apparently did wrote letters and otherwise intervened on behalf of Talansky’s various business interests, though Talansky testified that he had not specifically asked Olmert specifically to do so.
It is revealing, however, to see the amount of time Olmert was willing to devote to whether or not a hotel would conclude a contract for his patron’s mini-bars, rather than to other more pressing affairs of state.
Olmert has, for example, exhibited a curious, if perhaps overtly political, lack of leadership in significant matters affecting the country – including his non-intervention in emotional calls for revenge and retaliation that threatened an East Jerusalem family, and the country’s ethnic relations, after the attack on a nationalist yeshiva in which 8 students and the apparent assailant were killed.
Talansky said he was only invited to one reception given by the Prime Minister – but never to his home. But, he said he did receive a very nice 70th birthday card, and was also invited, at the last minute, to attend Olmert’s address to the U.S. Congress — and to attend Olmert’s son’s wedding.
In addition, Talansky said, he would visit Olmert during his trips:”Whenever [Olmert’s assistant] Shula told him I was here, no matter what, he would always come out and greet me. A hug, a big hug. He hugged me”.
According to pool reports by members of the Foreign Press Association who were assigned to cover the Court testimony, Talansky said he looked at Olmert as a man who “could accomplish a great deal…as a man who hopefully would build the city (as Mayor of Jerusalem)”, and heal the divisions.
The FPA pool report said that “Talansky talked about how Israel not priority for American Jewry, [about] giving money to hospitals and to concerts and [about] you have to pay people to come like Birthright and they don’t care so much…He appreciated Olmert’s ‘ability to articulate, his ability to reach out to the American people, the largest and richest community of Jews in the world and we are losing them at the fastest rate you can imagine. And that’s why I supported him. That’s why I gave it to him. That’s why I supported the man, that’s why I overlooked frankly and honestly, a lot of things. I overlooked them, maybe I shouldn’t have, but I overlooked them’.”
If Olmert resigns, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is positioned to replace him both as Kadima Party leader and as Prime Minister. Livni has been Israel’s most popular politician in polls over the past year,and has been Deputy Prime Minister for as least as long. Her call on Olmert to resign last year, after initial findings of the Winograd Commission about poor leadership during Israel’s “Second Lebanon War”, was brushed aside at the time with some irritation by Olmert. Her opponents — and some of her supporters — called on her to resign. To keep her busy, Olmert named her to head the Israeli negotiations team after the launch of the Annapolis Process whose aim is to make substantial progress towards the creation of a Palestinian State by the end of U.S. President George Bush’s term of office in January 2009.
If Olmert resigns and Livni takes over, there may not necessarily be early elections, at least not in the immediate future.
However, if he resists this call, defections from the current government will make early elections inevitable, even if Olmert could conceivably patch together a new coalition from various groups including the left wing Meretz party, who just may be persuaded to cooperate if it would otherwise mean a collapse of the current peace negotiations which Meretz supports and wishes would progress even faster.
Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu — who opposes the whole Annapolis Process because it is supposedly stacked against Israel but who is credited with significant modernization of Israel’s economy — will be one of the principal beneficiaries of any call for early elections as a result of the current turmoil in Israeli politics.
It will be interesting to see What Barak himself will do now. It is not clear that he would throw his hat into the ring, at least immediately, if early elections are called. He may well position himself above the coming fray. As is, as Defense Minister, he exercises nearly complete control over all decisions affecting Israel’s security — a position that has been reinforced during Olmert’s term in office as a concession to keep Barak in line. Olmert recently has stated publicly that the Defense Minister effectively rules the occupied West Bank, and this has also given Barak a veto over whether or not Israel implements any part of the Roadmap is implemented — something which is said to be essential for successsful conclusion of the current peace process. Barak may be happy to remain, as he is at the moment, the major power broker in Israeli politics.
Meantime, both Syria and the Palestinian Authority have suggested that they fear Olmert’s troubles will affect the peace processes…