"I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."

"Δεν ελπίζω τίποτε. Δεν φοβʊμαι τίποτε. Είμαι λεύτερος."
Epitaph, Nikos Kazantzakis

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Olmert’s in trouble with the law, again. So what?

If you ask any Israeli whether they think their Prime Minister is a crook, they will nod in agreement. In fact, some may even boast that ‘he is pretty good at it.’ Having weathered four police investigations into possible corruption, cronyism, bribery, and a series of other white collar offenses, and survived a long, albeit erratic probe into the Second Lebanon War, Ehud Olmert also developed a reputation for being a political Houdini. Indeed, after two years in power, since his 2006 election victory, it seemed that he had managed to beat the odds. And then, WHAM! Headlines Friday read that he had been urgently summoned by police for what appeared to be yet another probe into alleged bribery charges.

No one really knows what is going on. Actually, that is not exactly true: police and Justice officials know, as does Olmert – but there is a gag order, which is part and parcel of a rather silly, anachronistic legal philosophy that seems to pervade the Israeli legal system. Israel being a small country, it is only a matter of time before its unruly media will crack and leak details of the case – without attribution, off course. (See, the piece on the Fourth Estate in Israel). The common practice of secret sources means that the Israeli public will be bombarded with leaks from the police, prosecution, various politicians and the Prime Minister and his cronies for at least a couple of weeks before the gag order is lifted, at which point we will all have made up our minds about the case, rather than be given a serious opportunity to form an opinion based on a more or less objective method. Good thing there is no 'jury of your peers' system in Israel. It would be hard to find anyone who has not formed an opinion on your case, not to mention anyone admitting to be your peer.

What we think we know is that a wealthy foreign Jewish businessman allegedly paid Olmert large sums before he was Prime Minister – possibly when he served as Vice Premier and Minister of Industry and Trade in the government of Ariel Sharon, and maybe even earlier, when he was Jerusalem Mayor. The rush for an interview stemmed from two main reasons: it turns out that the businessman had been interviewed by police while on a visit to Israel recently, and probably cooperated with the investigators; and the investigators feared that as soon as Olmert and others involved in the case learned of this, an effort to scuttle the probe would be under way, first and foremost by coordinating their versions of the story.

Now the police say they have solid evidence against Olmert. If nothing stuck to the man until now, they seem to be confident that they have something that will. Reactions are mixed: the Israeli public is fed up but traditionally fickle; politicians are cautious but getting ready to pounce; the press is sharpening its pen knives; and Olmert is hoping the next 72 hours pass quickly. He was hoping to bask in the glory of the next week’s 60th Independence Day celebrations, with a line of foreign dignitaries arriving to pay tribute to Israel’s success story. Instead, everyone is on edge.

Pundits have already began writing about a ‘critical mass’ (as if Olmert was some nuclear experiment) of pressure that the Prime Minister will not be able to bear this time. One scenario has the details of the story leaking and the politicians and the press pounding on Olmert for the fifth time in less than two years. Everyone seems to be betting that no one in Israel can be that lucky - to survive five police investigations. They say that Labor Chairman and coalition partner, Ehud Barak will falter and threaten to quit the coalition unless Olmert steps down. That can be risky because infighting in Olmert’s Kadima party may result in a coalition implosion and new elections sooner than next year. No one in the coalition wants elections they know they cannot win. Barak already faces stern opposition in his own party. Only last week it was leaked out that there was more than shouting and shoving at a closed party meeting. Benjamin Netanyahu is lurking in the sidelines, waiting for an opportunity only he can possibly miss. And the Israeli public: with the price of rice rising, they just want to be left alone. Indeed, during the past year or so, the Israeli public appears to be a little tired of all the excitement – they have gotten used to the drone of low intensity warfare in the Gaza Strip, stable prices, low unemployment, even a government that is led by a crook, but whom they recognize to be their own. They don't want any surprises.

So what now? If this investigation gets serious – and the police and prosecution have something to hold onto, it would not be at all surprising if we saw progress in one of the following arenas:

a. a deal with Hamas for the release of the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. It is almost a done deal anyway: both sides know the price: about 1,300 to 1, give or take a few hundred. Hamas will get its prisoners released and Olmert will be a hero with Shalit coming home. Added to that, some sort of cease-fire will be signed and a new deal on how the crossings into the Gaza Strip would be run, will be ironed out.

b. direct talks with the Syrians, possibly with the tacit blessing of G.W. Bush, who is a big fan of Olmert and is on his way to the Holy Land next week. Bush is on his way out anyway, so Olmert, stuck between a rock (police probe) and a hard place (the waning Bush era) may decide the latter is worth annoying if it means popularity at home.

c. some sort of major military operation. This is not likely at this stage unless Hamas (or a smaller Gaza based militia) or Hezbollah do something particularly silly, and give Olmert and Barak an opportunity to take up an option they both saved for a particularly rainy day – in Israeli politics.

If they had bookies in Israel at every street corner, as they do in ‘civilized’ places like Britain or Cyprus, it is a fair chance that we would know the odds on Olmert’s political future by tomorrow. Those guys are not known for making many mistakes. But Olmert has proven to be a difficult politician to write off, and it seems like we have been down this path already – remember Sharon, the investigations against him, and the Gaza evacuation? Maybe one of Olmert's closest advisers, Vice Premier Haim Ramon, will be able to cook up another coup on the Arab-Israeli front. Anything to keep Bibi Netanyahu and Udi Barak at bay.
Michalis Firillas
4 May, 2008


conefor4200 said...

He should resist to pursue the Clinton tactics.

He should fire the attorney general for poking and fishing into past non-sense.

We do not need Olmerts, but the constant harassment is also annoying.

Can we deal with the Junta in Tehran with the same efficiency?

Forrest Broman said...

The shocking part of this is the extreme level of the Israeli publics tolerance for public crooks and corruption, and in the case Olmert, sheer incompetence. After the LEBANON DEBACLE, IT IS SO HARD TO BELIEVE HE IS STILL IN OFFICE!