The Israeli government shook this week and observers wondered how much longer it could stand.
Early Wednesday, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz abruptly resigned over his handling of last summer’s war with Hezbollah. Just hours earlier, the state’s prosecutor ordered a criminal investigation of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert into his role in the 2005 privatization of an Israeli bank. The Israeli press reported Monday that a rape indictment against Israeli President Moshe Katsav was imminent.
A week ago, Attorney General authorized an investigation of Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson for alleged embezzlement, conspiracy and money laundering. A Tel Aviv judge is expected to shortly decide the fate of former Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon, who was tried on sexual harassment charges. Senior officials of Israel’s Tax Authority have been forced to step aside in an alleged fraud investigation. Olmert’s own office manager was placed under house arrest in connection with that probe.
“There is a feeling of disgust in the country,” said one veteran Israeli political observer. “We can’t take the corruption anymore.”
Many Israelis have had enough, believing members of this government are self-serving and ethically suspect. A poll published last weekend found that just 14 percent of Israelis approved of Olmert’s performance, a drop from the previous low of just 22 percent. Analysts said this week’s decision to order a criminal probe of Olmert’s actions in the bank deal could be expected to drive down his approval rating even further. It is alleged that Olmert favored business associates, including Austrian real estate mogul Frank Lowy, in the sale of the bank at a time when he was finance minister. In a statement, the Justice Ministry said a review of the evidence gathered by the state comptroller, a government watchdog, “led to the conclusion that a foundation of evidence has been built that would justify opening a criminal investigation.”
Olmert has denied any wrongdoing.The only senior government official with a lower approval rating than Olmert is Amir Peretz, the defense minister, who had a 10 percent approval rating. The Halutz resignation was seen by some as putting pressure on Peretz to similarly take responsibility for the failed mission in Lebanon and resign. Many Israelis believe their military failed to defeat Hezbollah because of government incompetence.
An associate of Peretz was quoted as fearing Halutz’s action could have a “snowball” effect and compel Peretz to resign even though the two men had different responsibilities. Calls for Halutz to resign have come from many quarters since the end of the war, including political leaders and a group of reservists. But he had always resisted, saying he would do so only if called upon by the Winograd Committee. The committee, which was created to investigate the country’s handling of the war, is expected to release its preliminary findings late next month or early March; Olmert is slated to testify before the committee next month. The probe of Olmert prompted a call by Meretz Party Chairman Yossi Beilin for Olmert to step down pending the outcome of the probe. He said he would seek to convince the Knesset to compel him to step down.
“He is in a place where all that interests him is protecting himself,” Beilin was quoted as saying. “He can’t even deal with state matters.” And the chairman of the National Religious Party, Zevulun Orlev, reportedly said Olmert should step aside because he had recommended that Ya’akov Borovsky, the head of the anti-corruption unit in the State Comptroller’s Office, suspend himself when he came under investigation.
Ami Ayalon, who is seeking to unseat Peretz as Labor Party chairman in a May 28 primary, said the country should begin preparing for early elections to restore public faith in the political system. “The [investigation] requires Labor to prepare for the possibility of early elections in which the central issue will be the struggle against corruption and the restoring of the public’s trust in the political system,” Ayalon was quoted as saying. “Labor can only return to power if it is led by people with clean hands who represent a different kind of politics.”
Should Olmert be indicted, he cannot by law continue to govern and must suspend himself, according to Asher Susser, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. Israel’s deputy prime minister, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, would then become prime minister.
“He obviously cannot have this hanging over his head for a long time, but it is not going to prevent him from making decisions on Palestinian or Syrian issues, not that anyone is expecting anything soon on either track,” Susser said. “In any event, this [investigation] does not prevent it.” That view was echoed by Gabriel Sheffer, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who said he believes Olmert has the ability to negotiate if he wishes.
“When the prime minister decides he is going ahead, he can do it despite instability and debates,” he said. “The investigation might impair it and make it difficult, but the investigation may take a long time and in the meantime Olmert might be interested in showing progress [in talks with the Palestinians]. I think he will go ahead if the situation is ripe.”
On the other hand, Shlomo Aronson, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he does not believe Olmert has the political clout to pursue any peace initiatives. And he said he “does not expect anything to happen as long as Peres is leader of the Labor Party.”
“If he is succeeded by Ayalon or [Ehud] Barak, that is a different story,” he said. “Everything you see happening now is just political spinning.”
Another Israeli analyst said the turmoil in the political system would lead to early elections, probably in the fall. Polls show that Olmert’s Kadima Party would garner only 12 seats, a drop from the 29 it won in the March 2006 election. The opposition Likud Party is seen as winning 29 seats; it won only 12 a year ago. Israel Army Radio reported Tuesday that senior Kadima officials were worried that the investigation could further damage the party’s standing in the polls. They were quoted as saying that they would work to oust Olmert if the police probe ran into complications and would not wait for the results in an effort to avoid early elections.
Should Olmert step aside, Livni would automatically step into his post. Kadima could then hold an internal election and recommend to the president a new candidate for prime minister without the need for a general election or disbanding the Knesset. Some Kadima leaders see that as preferable to new elections in light of the party’s poor poll ratings.
Kadima officials recalled that three other prime ministers — everyone since 1996 — had also faced criminal investigations. But the Jerusalem Post quoted one Kadima minister as saying the party had “finished its career.”
One of the candidates for Labor Party leader, Ophir Paz-Pines, noted that Barak, a former prime minister, had been investigated for raising campaign funds illegally. He said he planned to stress that there was no difference between the two Ehuds.
One Israeli analyst said privately that he could foresee some Kadima ministers returning to the Likud Party from which they defected if the probe of Olmert appeared likely to result in an indictment.
Olmert’s lawyer, Eli Zohar, told Israel Radio that he welcomed the investigation so that “once and for all we can end this irrelevant misunderstanding. We hope the investigation will be conducted quickly and efficiently so that the witch hunt and criticism will disappear.”
It could be months before the police complete their investigation. The police anti-fraud unit is to handle to probe, then turn over its findings to the attorney general’s office, which will decide whether to seek an indictment. Attorney General Menachem Mazuz removed himself from the case because his sister, who holds a senior position at the Finance Ministry, was involved in the bank privatization.