A Few Old Jews II


Published May 29, 2008, issue of June 06, 2008.
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Israel hit the world’s front pages in an unaccustomed role last week. For a change, the news wasn’t about Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors but rather its intimate bonds with the Jews of the Diaspora. According to current reports, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is under furious pressure to quit his job because of his financial ties to a Jewish donor from Long Island.

On the face of it, a financial scandal in the Israeli prime minister’s office shouldn’t be such a big story. Every elected prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 has been investigated for financial misconduct. Israel and the world should have grown accustomed by now to the specter of corruption and gridlock roiling Jerusalem politics.

What’s different about the current case is that it actually might bring down the Olmert government, and that could change the course of world events. Israeli police say they have caught the prime minister red-handed in what they’re calling a serious felony. It’s the fourth active police file into Olmert’s doings. Unlike past leaders, Olmert doesn’t have a solid political base that will back him through the crisis.

Most important, Olmert is the first Israeli premier ever elected on a platform explicitly promising a compromise deal with a Palestinian leadership that might actually accept it. The prospect of Israeli-Arab peace is a bright spot on a global landscape dominated by gloom. Bringing down Olmert could derail the best hope in a generation for a stable Middle East peace.

Olmert is suspected of receiving envelopes of cash from Morris Talansky, a low-profile Long Island fundraiser. The money allegedly went to finance Olmert’s campaign expenses, as well as to his expensive tastes in cigars, pens, luxury hotels and first-class air travel. Police have also probed other major American donors, including casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and diet-food mogul S. Daniel Abraham.

The scandal has provoked endless agonizing over the moral failings of Israel’s leaders. But the hand-wringing is misplaced. It’s no accident that every prime minister since 1992 has been investigated for financial misdeeds; that was the year that Israel adopted a sweeping reform to clean up its politics. The reform required parties to choose Knesset candidates in open primaries rather than backroom bargaining. The idea was to create a more open, deliberative legislature.

Instead, the plan turned the Knesset into an unruly mob of grandstanding prima donnas, all desperate for television time. It destabilized the parties, making it nearly impossible for a prime minister to hold a coalition together and finish a term. And it raised the cost of campaigning far beyond the limits of Israel’s political funding law, creating a constant scramble for illegal campaign cash.

It also opened the door to a newly emerging class of Diaspora Jewish multimillionaires, all eager to put their personal stamp on Jewish history and ready to spend millions to do so. In recent years they have created think tanks, launched expensive journals, showered buckets of cash on politicians and even purchased political parties. Their efforts have helped mightily to shatter Israelis’ faith in their leadership and to sour Israelis’ views of Diaspora Jewry.

The hapless Morris Talansky, with his cigars and hotel upgrades, was the least of them. He only wanted to help a prime minister, not buy one.

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