There is a great scandal brewing here, but at least some of the implications are not as frightening as they seem.
The scandal concerns police investigations and potential criminal charges against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for deception, dereliction of duty, violation of trust, money laundering, tax evasion, and perhaps bribery. We are some way from a formal indictment, but serious reports, as well as leaks and speculation suggest that this is the most serious investigation of the five or six that have been waged against him in recent years. Political rivals within and outside his party are circling like vultures who scent rotting meat, and positioning themselves to do battle both with the prime minister and with one another.
Most prominent of the fears is that Prime Minister Olmert is selling out the country in order to keep the police at bay. Behind those fears are his announcements that a sort of peace agreement with the Palestinians of the West Bank and a cease fire with the Palestinians of Gaza are within reach, and that peace talks are underway with Syria, via Turkey, that can result in painful concessions.
The timing of these announcements is suspicious, to say the least. It is difficult to find a commentator who is not cynical about the prime minister's throwing himself a life preserver, or willing to make concessions opposed by considerable segments of the population in order to save his job. Reports are that Olmert is preoccupied with the criminal investigations, and cannot devote the time and energy necessary to the public's business. Even politicians in favor of concessions for the sake of peace with Palestine and Syria are wondering how much of the news is "spin" for the sake of Olmert's skin, and how much reflect serious efforts that can be pursued by Olmert's successor. Politicians and commentators from numerous camps are saying that it is time for Olmert to take a vacation or resign, so that someone else can manage serious issues without the hint of doing so for the sake of self-interest.
The prime minister also has prostate cancer, and may also be forgiven some time and energy to ponder various treatment options. Cynics did not hesitate to describe a recent announcement of his undergoing further tests as yet another effort to distract attention from the police investigations, and to gain public sympathy.
Commentators and political rivals are within their rights to question the timing of peace initiatives. Yet fears of the prime minister selling out the country are premature. Several features of the Israeli government, as well as complications in the peace initiatives help to soften those fears.
The Israeli government and its bureaucracy are not beholden to the prime minister to the extent that he can do what he wants. The police and the public prosecutor have sufficient independence, as well as professional integrity to continue with their investigations.
Israeli media are independent and aggressive. If anything, they may be too inclined to serve whoever in the police or the prosecutor's office in inclined to leak details in order to stain the image of someone in the political elite currently under investigation.
Olmert is not conducting negotiations with Palestinians or Syria by himself. His aides may be beholden to him, but they also have their concerns for professional integrity and for whatever opportunities might be available if Olmert is forced out of office.
The Israeli government is never entirely in the prime minister's pocket. Competitive parties sit in the government coalition. The leaders of those parties have their own interests, as well as rivals within their parties nipping at their heels if they seem to be following too closely the wishes of a prime minister (especially a prime minister who may be on the verge of ouster).
Olmert's own party is not monolithic. There are at least four senior members, all of them ministers in his government, who see themselves as potential replacements. Each has expressed at least guarded comments about the problems of the prime minister, and about the appropriateness of waiting to see the outcome of police inquiries.
Settlers on the Golan are in full fever, organizing with their allies in the right-of-center political parties and religious Jews who read the Bible to indicate that the Golan is within the Land of Israel, and not the property of the present generation of Jews--or any future generation--to give away. Secular skeptics, among them archaeologists, read the Bible as Jewish hyperbole. In their eyes, David's empire may have been no greater than a dusty acre or two outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City. Nonetheless, the Bible is one of the stimuli that fuels opposition to any deal that would surrender the Golan.
There is no indication that Olmert is giving away the shop in his dealings with the Palestinians of the West Bank or Gaza, or with the Syrians. The best indications are comments of Israel's adversaries.
Palestinians of the West Bank involved in negotiations periodically state that there has been no progress, or insufficient progress. The president of the Palestine National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has threatened to resign due to the lack of Israeli concessions.
Palestinians of Gaza have recently indicated that Israel has not accepted their terms for a cease fire, and that they cannot accept Israel's counter-demands. On the morning that Hamas announced its rejection of Israeli conditions, one of the Gaza factions exploded a heavily-loaded truck bomb near one of the transfer points for shipping food, fuel, and other supplies from Israel to Gaza. Aside from making a great noise, breaking windows within a radius of several miles, damaging the transfer point, and blowing the suicide driver to his or her paradise, the bomb accomplished nothing more than causing one more suspension of shipments into Gaza.
Even on the first day of announcing conversations, Syrians are saying that they cannot begin until Israel categorically concedes all of the Golan. They insist that this demand is not a precondition for negotiations, but their natural right to their own territory. Such comments suggest that Israel has yet to make categorical concessions. If Israel demands that Syria abandon its close ties to the terrorists of Iran, Hizbollah, and Hamas as a condition of peace, the negotiations may drag on through the careers of several future prime ministers.
Israelis may be right in being ashamed of their prime minister on account of repeated allegations, and mounting evidence against him. Those who fear him are exaggerating his power and influence.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Home tel: 972-2-532-2725
Cell phone: 054-683-5325