A defiant Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans to fly to Washington next week for the annual AIPAC convention, brushing aside demands from within his coalition that he step down after a Long Island rabbi testified in court that he gave Olmert at least $150,000 in cash over 13 years.
“He’s planning to be there and to speak,” said Mark Regev, Olmert’s spokesman.
But as much as Olmert tried to carry on with a business as usual stance, Tuesday’s pre-trial testimony of Rabbi Morris Talansky of Woodsburgh, L.I., was seen by many as devastating to Olmert’s reputation.
In answers to seven hours of questioning by the state prosecutor, Moshe Lador, Rabbi Talansky said he gave Olmert envelopes stuffed with cash between the years 1992 and 2005, during which time Olmert served as the mayor of Jerusalem and the minister of Industry and Trade.
He said Olmert requested the money — some of which the rabbi described as political donations and some as loans that he said have yet to be repaid — in cash. He said he felt “very, very uneasy” about giving Olmert cash.
“I said to myself, this is absolute insanity,” Rabbi Talansky told the three-judge panel. He added that he believed “something was wrong” with that arrangement.
Lador previously told the court that in earlier questioning, the rabbi had said Olmert would tell him exactly how much money to bring him. Most of the time, he said, the money was given to Olmert’s assistant, Shula Zaken. The rabbi testified that he did not know exactly where all the money went, but that Zaken told him that election campaigns had expenses.
He added that some of the money was also used to upgrade Olmert’s flights to the United States from business to first class. And he said some money was used by Olmert to cater to his tastes — “expensive cigars, expensive pens.” In addition, the rabbi said, he gave Olmert nearly $5,000 in cash to cover the cost of a Washington hotel because Olmert told him that his own credit card was “maxed out.”
Rabbi Talansky insisted that he never requested anything in return for the cash. But he acknowledged that Olmert tried to get him clients for his mini-bar business.
A public opinion poll by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz taken shortly after Rabbi Talansky testified found that 70 percent of Israelis did not believe Olmert was telling the truth when he denied any wrongdoing.
“His leadership has been eroded,” said Efraim Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “He is on borrowed time.”
Israeli columnists were also brutal in their treatment of Olmert. Sima Kadmon in YNet called the whole affair “disgusting.”
“It is shocking that a public servant demands and receives cash donations, with no receipts, and without any records being kept,” Kadmon wrote.
Although at their own request attorneys for Olmert and Zaken do not plan to cross-examine Rabbi Talansky until July 17, Kadmon noted that they did “not ask even one question that would crack the cement wall presented by the witness from America. The lawyers’ request that the public wait ….There is a limit to patience ….”
On Wednesday, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak told a press conference that he is not prepared to wait much longer and believes that Olmert must either resign, step aside temporarily or be replaced by his Kadima Party. If not, he said, early elections would be necessary.
“In the wake of the current situation and considering the challenges Israel faces, including Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, the captured soldiers and the peace process, the prime minister cannot simultaneously lead the government and conduct his personal affairs,” Barak said.
“Out of consideration for the good of the country and the accepted norms, I believe the prime minister must detach himself from the day-to-day leadership of country,” he added.
Although Barak said he is not standing over Kadima with a stopwatch and that he did not wish to become “involved in internal processes within Kadima,” we said that action was needed “soon, and I mean soon.”
In advance of the press conference, media reports suggested that Barak would give Olmert an ultimatum to either take a leave of absence or see his coalition collapse with the withdrawal of the Labor Party. But Barak’s comments were far less dramatic, observed Asher Arian, a political science professor at the University of Haifa.
“It’s not exactly a call of moral certainty,” he said. “It’s kind of a veiled threat. “It’s a no-risk kind of position. It makes Labor relevant without risking too much.”
Asked if Barak’s statement would now compel Kadima to dump Olmert, Arian replied: “I’m sure the politicians have been thinking about it all the time. So far they’ve concluded it’s not in their interest to do that. They don’t need Barak for that.”
Olmert said through a spokesman Wednesday that he did not plan to step aside because doing so now would give the appearance that he did something wrong in accepting the money the rabbi gave him. Olmert has said the money was used for political purposes only.
But Arian added that a new Kadima leader is “much more likely than [early] elections. The underlying assumption is that no one wants to have an election. …”
Jonathan Rynhold, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center, said the political situation now is in a state of flux.
“It’s as if all of the cards have been thrown up in the air,” he said. “A lot of things can happen.”
Among the possible scenarios is that those who lose a leadership struggle in Kadima might defect to the Likud Party, from which many of them came. He said a good leadership ticket for Kadima would be Tzipi Livni, the current foreign minister, and former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.
“She has suave sophistication and he has the military background,” Rynhold explained. “I don’t know if they could work together and whether Kadima is coherent enough to work together.”
Inbar said he was not surprised that “Barak came out with a pareve statement.”
“Everybody in the political system is smelling now,” he said. “People are trying to find the best positions to promote their own career. I think he [Barak] is afraid of elections.”
Opinion polls have favored Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu if elections were held today.
However, a poll published three weeks ago by the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot showed Livni the favorite in both a Kadima primary and in a contest against both Netanyahu and Barak. It found that she was Kadima’s only hope to win any upcoming round of elections.
Because Barak gave Olmert and Kadima some breathing room, Raphi Israeli, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said it would take a “few days or a couple of weeks to see what is going on.”
And he noted that because Barak suggested that he would keep the Labor Party in the coalition if Kadima replaced Olmert as prime minister, “the coalition can go on without new elections.”
In the event that Olmert refuses to step aside, Kadima does not push him out and Labor withdraw s from the coalition, Israeli said a no confidence vote would be needed in the Knesset to bring the government down. Even then, Olmert would remain prime minister until new elections were held within 90 days of the no confidence vote.
Asked why Olmert would fly to Washington next week for the AIPAC convention in light of the turmoil in Israel, Israeli replied: “He will do all he can to divert attention” from the corruption probe.
But former Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh cautioned that the investigation is “far from being completed” and because Rabbi Talansky has not been cross-examined, “it is too early to judge” how it will end.
“He [Olmert] has promised that he would resign if he is indicted,” Sneh said. “It is very far from that. Israel does not need another period of instability when we have so many complex issues on our agenda. … What Talansky said is more than embarrassing, but we have to abide by the law and the principles of democracy. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Constitutionally, as long as there is no indictment he is not obliged to resign.”
Asked about the public opinion surveys and the mood of the country, Sneh replied: “Polls and moods are not constitutional instruments.”