Israel chose for itself a president and a prime minister who should not have held those offices.
Both are tangled in criminal investigations that seem endless. Aside from resulting in their ouster from office (not yet accomplished in the case of the prime minister), neither process may produce significant punishment.
The case against the former president, Moshe Katsav, is beginning to smell from age. The police and prosecutors have been working on it for two years. It began when Katsav shot himself in the foot by complaining to the attorney general that an employee was trying to blackmail him. Since then two employees claim to have been raped, and there are countless tales of sexual harassment. The prosecutor dithered about the charges that would stand up in court. The woman making the most serious charges seemed likely to be a poor witness. The prosecutor and president agreed to a plea bargain that would entail a resignation, relatively minor charges, and no jail time. The president suspended himself from office and then resigned a short time before his term was to end. The plea bargain fell apart in the face of demands reaching the supreme court that trial courts be able to consider the most serious charges, and Katsav's insistence that he had done nothing wrong. Occasionally he has denied having sex with any of those women.
The prosecutors are again considering what charges to bring.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been the subject of criticism from the State Comptroller, and investigations by the police and prosecutors as he climbed through minor and major public offices since the early 1990s. Currently there are six or more investigations, mostly about actions alleged to have occurred before he became prime minister. The number of inquiries depends on how one separates or joins actions that overlap even while they refer to distinct issues and participants.
For the better part of a week, we have been entertained by the testimony of Morris Talansky concerned with the transfers of large amounts of cash. Occasionally the media labels him "Uncle Moish," reflecting an appealing personality who sang a political ditty in court, and approached the attorney who was the leader of a prolonged attack against him in order to express a lack of hard feelings. We have seen a film that Olmert made in celebration of Talansky's 70th birthday. It is a testimony of great praise that Talansky used in promoting his business interests.
The same man is "Mr Talansky" when described as a political and business operator who worked for himself while working for others. He evaded, or did not recall, when pressed by questions that seemed likely to produce criminal charges against him in the United States and/or Israel.
The conventional wisdom is that Olmert's political career is all but over. So far there have been no clear signs of serious bribery or other crimes likely to produce a long prison term. A generous view is that he is guilty of what George Washington Plunkitt called honest graft. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington_Plunkitt
Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I've
made a big fortune out of the game, and I'm gettin' richer every day, but
I've not gone in for dishonest graft--blackmailin' gamblers,
saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc . . .
There's an honest graft, and I'm an example of how it works. I might
sum up the whole thing by sayin': 'I seen my opportunities and I took 'em'.
How did Katsav and Olmert get as far as they did? Do their careers signal anything basically corrupt about Israeli society or politics?
Both had long careers in the Knesset. Katsav languished in lower and middle ranking ministerial positions until he appeared as Likud's candidate for the presidency against Shimon Peres in 2000. Insiders claim that Katsav's sexual appetites were well known among government secretaries and members of Knesset, but the mood was "anybody but Peres." One Knesset member reports that several of his colleagues hoped that the presidency would reform Katsav.
His public face was that of a non-controversial president, who expressed himself correctly, until that fateful complaint to the attorney general.
Olmert climbed higher in ministerial positions than Katsav. He eventually won the big prize when Ariel Sharon suffered the stroke that ended his career. Shortly before the election that confirmed Olmert as prime minister, the lead article in Ha'aretz weekend magazine, spread over 12 pages, was headlined, 'Prime Minister of Lack of Evidence'. It detailed numerous cases where he was accused and investigated, but ended with no charges brought, the case closed, or dismissed for lack of proof.
Since then, Olmert has also survived widespread public criticism, as well as a damning official report, about his performance in the war labeled Lebanon II. Talansky's testimony, for all of its quirks, may be enough--along with other information recently exposed--to produce criminal charges and end his career.
The Promised Land is not paradise, and its public servants are not angels. We can quarrel as to whether Katsav and Olmert have been more or less immoral than John F. Kennedy or Richard M. Nixon, more or less foolish as policymakers than George W. Bush.
We always hope for better. Often we select the least undesirable of competing candidates. We are not shy in criticism. The judicial process is slowed by procedures that assure protections to the accused. It also suffers from an overload due to a surplus of characters who do not qualify as angels.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Home tel: 972-2-532-2725
Cell phone: 054-683-5325