We are in a period of political chaos. It may end quickly, or drag on for months.
An American fund raiser has testified that he provided to Ehud Olmert numerous envelopes over the course of 15 years. Olmert preferred cash. He also enjoys Cuban cigars, gifts of expensive fountain pens and watches, first class air travel, and expensive hotel suites. The prime minister and his shrinking group of supporters are saying that all was legal in the framework of campaign contributions, and expenses for overseas travel. His claims of taking nothing for personal use seem weaker by the day. Even if Olmert has not broken any laws, there is a stench of hedonism.
Observers say that the fund raiser has contradicted himself, and is not telling the whole truth. He may sense traps that will have him charged with bribery, money laundering, or tax evasion. Prosecutors of Israel and perhaps the United States are paying attention to what he is saying.
Commentators who claim access to the police or prosecutor say that stronger witnesses have been heard, and will tell their story in court if it gets that far.
Olmert remains in power. He has the authority to fire any ministers who ratchet up their accusations. Defense minister Ehud Barak insists that Olmert resign or suspend himself. Barak has not explicitly threatened to pull the Labor Party out of the government coalition. Cynics say that Barak is concerned that a national election will not give his party enough seats to provide him with anything better--or as good--as the position he currently holds. Foreign minister Tsipi Livni has spoken amorphously about morality. Other ministers who are members of Olmert's own party have said that they would compete with Livni for party leadership if Olmert leaves office, but they have not yet attacked the prime minister in public.
Palestinians, Syrians, Americans, and others worry that international negotiations may have to wait on the internal crisis. If there are open windows of opportunity, they may close before anything tangible occurs. Some say that the windows are not really open. They are pleased that Olmert does not have the political backing to make far reaching concessions to Palestinians or Syrians who are bluffing about their willingness to live at peace alongside the Jews.
It could all end by the time this message reaches your computer. The law provides opportunities for a suspension of an elected official while the legal process goes forward. Political allies who remain close to the prime minister may tell him that it is all over, and to make the best deal he can in exchange for a resignation. The prosecutor may not feel confident enough about the evidence to indict. If that comes, it would require the prime minister to resign. Currently Olmert is speaking about his certainty of being proved innocent. Much of the public is tired of numerous investigations, some ongoing, and others ended on account of evidence that is not sufficient for a convinction. What we are hearing now may be sufficient.
For those who have no tolerance for uncertainty, pay attention to another country.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Home tel: 972-2-532-2725
Cell phone: 054-683-5325