Israelis drew a collective gasp of surprise September 7, when the police formally recommended that Ehud Olmert be indicted on corruption charges. The surprise was not that their prime minister was facing accusations of financial impropriety and abuse of power. What caught many Israelis off guard was the flimsiness of the charges.
Olmert had suffered political death by a thousand cuts over the months, watching his credibility drain away as police conducted their probe in the glare of spotlights and leaked lurid details of their findings to the press. In the end, his government paralyzed and his reputation shattered, the prime minister was forced to announce his resignation last month. Now the police report has been published, and it’s suddenly unclear what all the fuss was about. In fact, some ranking officials — and a lot of private citizens — are saying that the prime minister was overthrown in a legal coup by overly zealous police investigators.
Police have been noisily probing Olmert’s affairs since shortly after he took office in 2006, chasing down suspicions of favoritism and graft during his terms as trade minister and Jerusalem mayor, before he became prime minister. The allegations — buying a home at a below-market price, giving jobs to political cronies, favoritism in the privatization of a government-owned bank — all ran into dead ends.
As investigators went through Olmert’s closets, however, evidence tumbled out that raised other suspicions. Police found an account at a travel agency, Rishon Tours, where Olmert appeared to be parking funds he received by billing multiple not-for-profits for the same overseas speaking tours. The extra money was allegedly used for private family vacations. Most famously, witnesses said that Olmert had been receiving illegal cash gifts from a Long Island fundraiser, Morris Talansky, raising suspicions of bribery.
As leaks proliferated and suspicions mounted, the government was crippled. Olmert’s time was taken up defending himself. Diplomacy and peace negotiations were stalled because of Olmert’s image as a lame duck, lacking authority to make decisions. When initiatives did get under way, opponents denounced them as ploys to draw public attention away from the scandals. In the end, Olmert had no choice but to make way for a new prime minister to step in and take charge.
Now the police have published their report. They found evidence that Olmert received money from Talansky, but no evidence of a quid pro quo that might constitute bribery. The legal status of the travel-billing affair isn’t clear, partly because the funds involved were not public funds but private reimbursements for freelance lecture tours. The one solid charge that might plausibly bring conviction is that Olmert failed to report the Talansky donations as required under Israel’s money-laundering laws — laws that were created to prevent organized crime from hiding drug and extortion money.
This isn’t the first time that an investigation of a sitting Israeli prime minister turned up essentially empty. The past three prime ministers all came under investigation, and all the cases were dropped for insufficient evidence. Given the latest police findings, it would have been reasonable to expect this investigation, too, to be dropped.
But not this time. Olmert has already been driven from office. It’s too late to close the books, let him lick his wounds and rebuild. Now the police will have to prove they had a good reason for overturning an Israeli government. And so they’re recommending indictment, fervently hoping — according to various Israeli legal and political sources — that the money-laundering charge will stick if no other charge does.
The backlash is just beginning to emerge. Several of Israel’s most respected journalists have begun reviewing the events and asking who is in charge. The justice minister, Daniel Friedmann, publicly accused the police earlier this month of unseating the prime minister to gain publicity. That touched off a sharp exchange between Friedmann and the public security minister, Avi Dichter. Olmert is said to be furious at his defense minister, Labor Party chief Ehud Barak, who brought things to a head with an ultimatum to Olmert to resign or watch his coalition dissolve.
The most serious victim in the affair, though, is not any one individual. Israelis’ faith in their government is sinking to a dangerous low as one prime minister after another is raked over by investigators — for infractions that don’t even hold up. Israel needs an effective, decisive government as it navigates the changes in its region.
The gravest damage is to the hope of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord before the region deteriorates once more into mass bloodshed.