Monday, May 12, 2008

The Olmert scandal

Hizbullah and its allies have just pulled off what may well turn out to be a coup d'état in Lebanon. Large swathes of Beirut have fallen to the forces of Hassan Nasrallah and his Amal allies. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League.
If Hizbullah's triumph is left unchecked by the mostly Sunni Arab world, non-Arab Iran will have moved a step closer toward regional hegemony.

There aren't too many dull news days in the Middle East. On Thursday, Yom Ha'atzma'ut, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad let loose another hateful tirade, calling Israel a "stinking corpse" doomed to disappear. Latest intelligence assessments suggest Teheran could have nuclear weapons (and hard-to-overcome cruise missiles to deliver them) even sooner then originally feared.

Meantime, US President George W. Bush is scheduled to be here on Wednesday and Thursday to help Israel celebrate 60 years of independence, and also to push hard for a "shelf-agreement" between Jerusalem and an enfeebled Palestinian Authority. The next day, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is set to arrive to press the Olmert government to accept Hamas's offer for a Gaza cease-fire. Meanwhile, even as he facilitates the dismemberment of Lebanon, Syrian President Bashar Assad may be growing impatient over the Golan Heights.

CLEARLY, THIS is not a good time for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to be focused on anything but running the country, addressing a vital range of security, foreign policy and (let's not forget) domestic agenda issues. There is also the matter of his cancer that must be attended to.

But realistically speaking, how can he be paying complete attention to his job and his health while under multiple investigations by police and prosecutors? With a gag order over many key aspects of the latest inquiry now lifted, we know that the prime minister is suspected of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash bribes over a period of years from Morris Talansky of New York.

At this point, police say they neither know the source nor the purpose of the money Talansky is said to have handed over.

Police will be interviewing the prime minister again this week in an investigation that is now expected to take, not days or weeks, but months to complete. The premier will no doubt worry whether his long-standing associate and former law partner, Uri Messer, is testifying against him. Olmert will be focused on whether what Talansky is telling the police is really as incriminating as media leaks suggest. He will certainly be anxious about how much longer his former bureau chief, Shula Zaken, can remain loyal in the face of repeated police interrogations.

Olmert insists he did nothing wrong and that when all the facts are known he will be vindicated. Late Thursday night he declared: "I am looking into the eyes of each and every one of you... I have never taken a bribe, I have never taken an agora into my own pocket. [But] if the attorney-general decides to indict me, I shall resign."

He insists that any money Talansky gave him went into his political campaigns or to other bona fide purposes. Plainly, in the back of everyone's mind is the dismal track record that police and prosecutors have established in the handling of previous investigations involving former president Moshe Katsav and ex-premiers Ehud Barak, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon.

GIVEN THE composition of his governing coalition and absent an indictment, Olmert may be able to hang on as prime minister even as the investigation continues. And it must be stressed that he is presumed innocent unless proven otherwise.

Nonetheless, the prime minister must be afforded the expedited opportunity to refute the latest charges, must utilize that opportunity, and must urge Uri Messer, Shula Zaken and anyone else involved to testify forthrightly as well. Saying that he will resign if indicted is simply not good enough because the insistent agenda of this country cannot be put on hold while Olmert and his key advisers are distracted.

Israel's governance is simply too challenging a burden for a leader preoccupied with facing down investigators in a complex financial scandal. If the prime minister cannot put this latest scandal to rest without delay, he must hand over the reins of power. The welfare of the country demands it.

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