We have been roiled for more than a week in diminishing silence. There has been an intense investigation of the prime minister and those close to him, but the police and the court imposed a news blackout on all details. Some bits came out in foreign media available via the internet, but the police insisted on their posture until the end of Independence Day 60th anniversary celebrations.
Now we are told that an American fundraiser passed large sums, some of it in cash, to Ehud Olmert over the course of several years. The prime minister went public as soon as he could (the blackout also applied to him), and explained that the money was for campaigning expenses, and that he relied on his attorney to assure that it was all legal.
Olmert is in trouble. He has been there before, and he may emerge from this, too, with nothing more than additional scars.
He may be right in insisting that he never took a bribe, and that he never used any gifts for personal expenses, but that may be irrelevant. Israeli laws about campaign financing are much simpler and less permissive than the American equivalents. Here there are not the varieties of quasi-independent committees that raise money and spend it in favor of a candidate. Israeli politicians do not have the personal wealth of some American candidates. And the courts have not established "freedom of expression" as an umbrella for political advertizing. Moreover, it is illegal for a public figure to receive large sums of money. It is not necessary to prove a quid pro quo in terms of favors given or promised.
News is that Olmert's lawyer, who he is relying on to have managed the transfers properly, is now willing to testify against the prime minister.
The American fund raiser is a story in himself. We now know that he is Moshe Talansky, 75 years old, known as the "laundryman" by people close to Olmert. He is said to have transferred funds to Olmert beginning when he was running for mayor of Jerusalem in the 1990s. Talansky also spent years raising money for Shaare Zedek hospital and other causes. A person associated with the hospital was quoted on Israel radio as describing Talansky as a nocal, which is equivalent to a host of uncomplimentary English terms: crook, scoundrel, shyster, villain, rogue, fraud, equivocator, faker, flimflammer, fraudulent, gouger, grifter, impostor, jackal, knave, miscreant, quack.
Toward the end of the news blackout, Ha'aretz slipped around the restrictions by locating Talansky's ex-wife. She lives in Jerusalem, could not be named due to what was forbidden, but expressed herself like many other women left behind for what her husband thought was someone more suitable. She was outspoken in her glee that Talansky and his friend Olmert had fallen afoul of the police. She had met Olmert, but never liked him. She viewed him as a politician who knew how to sound attractive, but was never really pleasant. She hopes that the investigation will end with his indictment.
Olmert's political opponents are dancing on what they hope will be his political grave. Left wing moralists are taking the high ground, and emphasizing that a politician who has been the subject of so many police inquiries cannot possibly lead the country. Right wing politicians are saying that he cannot remain in a position where he might make concessions to the Palestinians and Syrians.
Olmert's crisis may have broken at this time in response to reports that he may be close to some kind of agreement, perhaps partial, with the Palestinians; and has said that he would give up the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria. Talansky himself has been identified with religious Jews who opposed the withdrawal of settlements from Gaza, and oppose any further territorial concessions.
George W. Bush and some other leaders of important countries are due here to help Israel celebrate its 60th anniversary. Bush is also likely to nudge, or push, whoever is the prime minister to improve the Palestinians' chances to create their state.
At this point it is not possible to conclude anything more than we are likely to hear more about all of this before Bush comes. If he comes. This might be a time for the president to reconsider his crowded schedule, and think of some way to end his presidency other than with a Palestinian state.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Home tel: 972-2-532-2725
Cell phone: 054-683-5325