Yesterday saw a dramatic turn in Ehud Olmert’s bribery scandal, as Morris Talansky, the New York businessman at the center of the storm, testified before an Israeli court.
There was some good news here for Olmert. The prosecution questioned the witness for seven hours, during which time he insisted he neither asked nor received anything in return for the $150,000 in cash he gave Olmert over a fifteen-year period. This is plausible: There are many American philanthropists who, acting out of a genuine desire to help the Jewish state, regularly support one Israeli politician or another, and Talansky came across to reporters as motivated by ideology rather than business interests. Olmert’s people immediately began claiming that his testimony proves their side of the story.
But the rest of the story is wildly disgraceful for Olmert, and even if he never sees a prison cell, it is hard to imagine Israelis ever voting again for a party that counts him among its leadership. According to Talansky, in addition to the cash he handed Olmert in envelopes whenever they met, Talansky also covered Olmert’s intensely decadent lifestyle, such as flying first-class rather than business, a $30,000 vacation to Italy, or $4,700 for a single night at the Ritz Carlton in Washington. Such expenses may seem unremarkable in certain high-flying American circles, but for an Israeli public servant they are outrageous, an utter humiliation for Olmert.
And then there is the odd matter of an additional $380,000 which was apparently wired from Talansky’s own Israeli-based companies directly to Olmert’s assistant. It is very difficult to prove bribery in cases like these, since very often payment comes well before the favor is returned, and the quid pro quo is by implicit agreement rather than anything traceable in an email. Yet this is one of the main reasons that campaign finance is so heavily guarded, and why giving thousands of dollars in cash to politicians is regarded as highly problematic. Whatever Olmert’s legal case, it really looks like his political career is heading to its end.
This end may come sooner than it takes for the wheels of justice to do their work. Today’s Jerusalem Post tells us that Ehud Barak, head of Olmert’s main coalition partner, the Labor Party, is expected to hand Olmert an ultimatum: You quit, or we’re out. Which means either that Olmert’s own party will have the good sense to sack him, or we are going to elections.