PM Olmert
Photo: Gil Yohanan

Fight of his life

Olmert has faced quite a few tough moments, but latest probe may be the toughest

We will likely never forget Thursday evening, the end of the State of Israel’s 60th Independence Day. And it’s a good thing that we won’t forget it.


Even a cynical and sober public, which in the past few years has become accustomed to acts of corruption by its leaders, found it difficult to hear the suspicions pertaining to the prime minister. It is indeed true that the public treats all politicians as if they are in one boat: All are corrupt, self-interested, and take care of themselves first. Yet the offence Olmert is suspected of belongs to a whole new ballgame and completely changes the way we address this affair.


It is no wonder that the prime minister was quick to face the public Thursday evening and provide his own version. Olmert realizes that if he is suspected of accepting a bribe, he won’t be able to rely on the well-known Olmertian technique: A combination of law and spins, arguments and delays. He knows that suspicions of having received large sums of money that went into his pocket, in cash, inside envelopes, for years, are a whole new story, and Olmert made an effort to disprove it Thursday night.


I never accepted a bribe, I never took a cent into my pocket, he said. He said the massive transfers of money were meant for election campaign purposes, in the hopes that his acts will be perceived as similar to what Barak and Sharon did. Meanwhile, he shifted the responsibility for managing financial affairs to his attorney and friend Uri Messer. Yet another leader who knew nothing, saw nothing, and heard nothing.


One’s tendency was to believe Olmert, who at 11:30 at night asked us to look into his eyes. And besides, this story makes no sense: It fits a merchant in the market, but Olmert? The crafty and sophisticated lawyer? Cash? It appears that part of the shock in the political system and media is not over the offence, but rather, over its lack of sophistication. After all, if this story is true, Olmert accepted stacks of cash stuffed into envelopes. Moreover, he didn’t keep this a secret: At least three more people knew about it.


On the other hand, one realizes that if the police and State Prosecutor’s Office, with their experienced makeup and after everything that happened in the Katsav affair, are undertaking such drastic moves – we are indeed talking about serious and well founded suspicions. They possess the material. Witnesses spoke or remained silent. It appears law enforcement officials would not be putting their professional prestige on the line if they didn’t think there was solid evidence.


Decision time in Kadima

And still, we have seen things happen before, and if this bang ends with a whimper and if after a week where a prime minister serves under warning while Israelis rely on foreign newspapers and half-truths and rumors, we find out that all this was baseless, the earthquake would have to take place within the law enforcement system.


Olmert does not intend to resign before an indictment is served. At least this is what could be understood from his words. But there is no other way to say it: Olmert took part in official Independence Day events as an illegitimate prime minister. These are ceremonies where the most distinguished bodies are represented; the State of Israel’s security, legal, academic, and public elites. If there is a place where this legitimacy is manifested, this is the place; at the annual Defense Ministry event, at the Israel Prize award ceremony, and at the Presidential Residence. And there, the suspicions against Olmert were the talk of the day.


But not only there: It is doubtful whether there is one citizen in Israel who saw Olmert at one of these ceremonies and was not shaking his head with disapproval, while listening to his words with much less respect than could have been expected.


Olmert knows it. It isn’t difficult to recognize this on his face. It appears that in the toughest moments he faced thus far, and there were quite a few of those, he didn’t look like that. The sense of euphoria has been completely wiped off his face. It appears that we are no longer dealing with his political survivability skills or even with a battle for public opinion. If the suspicions against him are well founded, we are talking about, without exaggeration, a fight for his life.


The prime minister must disprove as quickly as possible the charges against him. He must do everything, and I mean everything, in order to prove his innocence. And this means to push forward, advance, cooperate – anything that will bring this affair to an end. Any attempt to maneuver, buy time, or delay will be perceived as though the prime minister is evading an inquiry into the truth.


It is true that at this time, politically speaking, he does not face any danger. We can expect the Likud to allow Olmert to face the legal system. Meanwhile, the likelihood that his coalition partners – the Pensioners, Shas, and Labor – will undertake a formal step is slim. Why does Barak need to rush if someone else is doing the job for him?


Olmert’s problem these days is actually inside his own party, Kadima. Even if the legal process takes time, this time won’t grant him legitimacy. He doesn’t need to be a prophet to know that his public status, which has been stabilized after long months, is expected to totally collapse, maybe irreversibly so, in light of the suspicions against him. And Olmert’s party may collapse along with him. An error of judgment by its members will turn them into dust as well.


Members of Kadima, more than any other party, will have to take decisions soon. After all, Olmert may have nothing to lose at this point – but they sure have. 


פרסום ראשון: 05.09.08, 15:15
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