Ehud Olmert's $150,000 misunderstanding
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Zionism & Israel Center http://zionism-israel.comNo one can ignore the scandal rocking Israel's government, though it is surely not the first of its kind or the biggest. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stands accused of receiving over $150,000 in funds transferred by American millionaire Morris Talansky. Some of the funds were used to finance election campaigns, some were used to pay travel expenses according to Talansky's testimony. Additional "loans" for various purposes are also mentioned. Without regard to the outcome of the judicial process, most Israeli political leaders seem to be united in insisting that the Prime Minister cannot continue to serve until the issue is resolved.
Asking Olmert to step aside temporarily is not the same as prejudging his case. Some are tempted to rush to judgement, but that is the purpose of the legal process. Many scandals and allegations against Olmert and others that have come to nothing. The current charges, given the general unpopularity of Olmert, have the look and feel of the constant, politically motivated, "scandals" that dogged the administration of US President Harry S. Truman. The White House was supposedly filled with his crooked cronies, the State Department was supposedly full of communists. Truman had "lost China" it was alleged. Truman was called every possible name - machine politician, crook, traitor, soft on Communism, a fascist warmonger, a dangerous leftist. Every other day brought another charge, but most of them were proven false. none reflected on the rectitude of Truman, and all the political ones were unfounded.
After the fact, the consensus of historians is that Truman was one of the most upright and able leaders of the twentieth century. Levi Eshkol was likewise reviled as a weakling during his term as prime minister of Israel, but history has taken a much kinder view of this man. Those who are quick to judgment should remember the examples of Harry Truman and Levi Eshkol. Those "Zionist" "patriots" who insist on crying "Traitors!" and predicting disasters should consider whether their own words and actions are in the best interests of Israel, or serve only to support their own political views.
One has to ask why Morris Talansky waited 15 years before deciding that his financial contributions to Olmert were "unkosher," and who made certain that the police would know about them at this particular time. In a sense, the scandal, if there was wrongdoing. is truly non-partisan. When it began, Ehud Olmert was a member of the "right wing" Likud party, and the money he accepted went to finance Likud political campaigns apparently. By the time it concluded, Olmert was no longer "right wing."
Olmert is unpopular. His government is dealing with crises that seem to have no attractive resolution: peace negotiations with a Palestinian partner that has no control over its own territory, rockets falling on Sderot and Ashkelon, kidnapped soldiers in Gaza and Lebanon, a possible Hezbollah takeover in Lebanon, Iranian nuclear development. He has certainly made mistakes. The only way to avoid all mistakes is not to do anything, and even that is a mistake. Even if he had made no mistakes, some situations have no good resolution, so that whatever is done can be perceived as a blunder. But Ehud Olmert also presides over unprecedented prosperity for the state of Israel. Our once sick economy is now deemed to be the "most successful in the world" according to foreign experts. Ehud Olmert and his government deserve some of the credit for that, as they surely would be blamed for economic failure.
However, the current political and legal situation makes it almost impossible for Olmert to continue in office. Crucial decisions about war and peace must be made. Some will be unpopular. A leader in his situation, who has lost the confidence of the people, and must also engage in fighting legal battles, will not have the influence needed to lead and to get others to follow.
It is certain that enemies of Israel will gloat about this development, as indeed they already are. They need to be reminded that the political drama that is taking place in Israel could happen in any country in Europe, in the United States. Japan or Australia. Democracy is a creaky institution that takes into account human frailties. A "scandal" of this sort could not happen in almost any other country in the Middle East. It is unimaginable that the Syrian people would be able to try Bashar Assad for corruption and malfeasance for example, or call the Mullahs of Iran to account for the widespread corruption and arbitrary enforcement of the law in Iran. As for our Palestinian neighbors, the corruption of their government is still, unfortunately, taken pretty much for granted. Only the rulers of democracies are subject to the law. Israel's democratic, relatively orderly system of government finally caught up with Olmert. The affair is not to the credit of Israel, just as the sordid Watergate scandal was not a positive development for the United States. The test of democracy however, is in how the problem is handled. The process of change of government that was effected in the United States after Watergate was surely preferable to the way in which governments are changed in many countries of the Middle East, or the face-off that accompanied the fall of the USSR. The American system proved itself. Now it is up to the Israeli system to prove itself.
Olmert was able to withstand the fiasco of the Second Lebanon War despite all odds, as well as weathering several previous corruption allegations, but it does not appear that he can withstand this storm. Labor party members have forced Chairman Ehud Barak to issue what amounts to an ultimatum to Olmert - either "disengage" himself from the government, or they will quit the coalition. The latter which would leave Olmert's Kadima party without a majority.
It is in the nature of the human political animal that the cause of justice in a democracy is served by partisanship. Olmert's political opponents were certain to be more zealous than his supporters regarding his alleged malfeasance. However, the call for Olmert to distance himself from the government is no longer a partisan issue, since it is supported not only by the political right, but by leaders of virtually every party. Barak and Labor are apparently betting that Olmert will choose to suspend himself from his post, or that Kadima will force him to do so. Olmert, however, has said he is not even considering resigning or suspending himself or "going on vacation." He has denied most of the Talansky allegations. Legally, Olmert is not required to resign unless he has been indicted. The law also provides that he may declare himself temporarily unable to carry out his duties.
Labor party members would no doubt be happier if there are no elections at this time, since new elections would almost certainly bring the opposition Likud party under Benjamin Netanyahu to power. Alternatives include temporary or permanent replacement of Ehud Olmert by the popular Tzippy Livni, currently Foreign Minister, a Labor-Likud unity government, or a merger of Labor and Kadima. Barak's dramatic announcement does not have a time limit however. He made a similar statement about a year ago, but never carried through his threat. The last word has not been said.
At any given time, Israel faces a battery of crises that would provide sufficient material for several episodes of the television serial West Wing: Existential threats like Iran, border skirmishes, rocket fire, momentous peace negotiations, kidnapped soldiers and other vital issues that do not play a role in the political lives of most normal countries. Our tiny country has more political drama than most large countries. This morning, IDF killed two Hamas terrorists for example. It is almost never a good time to change leadership in Israel. There are few leaders who give up their post with the grace shown by Yitzhak Rabin in 1977, when he resigned his post because his wife had an illegal foreign bank account with a value of about $3000.00. However, if the Israeli people have decided that Ehud Olmert cannot serve, or if it is definitely established that he committed an indictable offense then the system will do what is required, as it did in the case of former president Moshe Katsav.
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