Thursday, July 31, 2008

Until The Fat Lady Sings

This is an easy one. Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced on Wednesday that he would resign following the choice of his Kadima party’s candidate for Prime Minister on September 17, 2008.

Israel TV’s reporter Ayala Sasson analyzed the speech and pointed out that although Prime Minister Olmert has decided not to run in the primaries, he may be the interim Prime Minister until as late as next spring, should Kadma’s new Prime Minister candidate fail to gather a majority needed for a coalition and new elections are called.

In Israel, the party in power has a chance to simply change leaders and maintain control of the government, running out the four-year term, assuming the current coalition partners agree to continue with the new leader. So far Prime Minister Olmert has been in office 31 months, with another 17 months remaining. His replacement as party chief would then serve the remaining 17 months before the scheduled elections take place.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and ex-Chief of Staff, ex-Defense Minister, currently Minister of Transport, Shaul Mofaz are the two leading contenders for Olmert’s job as Kadima party leadership. News analysts think that Livni has the better chance to win the primaries, but are unsure if she can then cobble together a coalition, nor how well she’ll do in the job.

Liked leader, ex-Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu has called for new elections rather than a continuation of the Kadima rule. Labor party leader Ehud Barak has also hinted he wants new elections.

According to political analysts Olmert was forced to make this decision for a number of reasons. One was the scurrying behind the scenes by political rivals who were trying to unseat him, making backdoor deals with coalition partners for support.

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak has threatened to bolt the coalition if new elections for Kadima party head were not called. Cynics say Barak had to do this or lose his own position within the Labor party.

Up until now the coalition partners had stuck by Olmert through the vagaries of his suspected criminal activities because they favored their jobs and positions over new elections and uncertain futures.

These coalition partners ignored the police leaks and media reports in hopes that Olmert would be able to avoid an indictment, as he apparently promised them he would. These partners apparently finally gave up their hope and started making deals with other candidates, leaving Olmert with little or no choice.

The main reason his choices have run out is the latest scandal; the media is called it “Olmertours.” Apparently the police have enough evidence of Olmert using the Rishon LeZion travel agency, Rishon Tours, to book flights and hotel rooms for himself and his family while serving as either as the Minister of Industry and Trade, acting Finance Minister, or Prime Minister. The problem with the bookings is that many were paid for by more than one charitable organization. This multiple billing of plane tickets, hotel bookings, and travel expenses, amounts to a breach of public trust, a charge that would be enough to strip Olmert of his immunity from prosecution.

According to law enforcement sources, “We are talking about many family trips of at lest two family members at a time, for example mother and daughter, or two of the children, whose travel expenses were covered by the account in Rishon Tours….the case is unequivocally substantiated and by all appearances it will result in an indictment.”

The Prime Minister is to be questioned again on Friday by the police about this alleged crime.

The “Olmertours” scandal was one of five that are now are the books. The others are the Talansky affair, with police investigating allegations that Olmert took money while serving as Mayor of Jerusalem, Minister of Tourism, Minister of Industry and trade, and perhaps even Prime Minister.

The police have testimony from U.S. businessman Morris Talansky that he gave Olmert $150,000 over a ten-year period. That investigation is still on going, although recently Talansky gave confused and confusing testimony during cross-examination that significantly weakened the State’s case against Olmert. Supporters believe Olmert may be able to beat these charges in court, should he ever be indicted.

The Bank Leumi affair; Olmert was in charge of the process of choosing the winner of a tender for the privatization of Bank Leumi while serving as interim Minister of Finance. He was suspected of manipulating the tender in favor of one of his financial backers. Those charges were ultimately dropped.

According to the State Comptroller’s office, while Minister of Industry and Trade Olmert’s staff made appointments out of political considerations as a result of “improper hiring process…in order to curry favor with political associates belonging to the party of then minister Olmert.”

Olmert was also suspected of providing personal favors to his old law partner Uri Messer, acting for a company Messer represented. The police claim this constitutes a conflict of interest, breach of trust, and fraud, if the charges are made and proven.

Olmert’s long time secretary Shula Zaken was arrested and her computers and records seized during an investigation into tax breaks which favored businessmen, also Olmert supporters, received from Zaken’s brother, who then ran the Israel tax authority.

Olmert is also suspected of using his position as then Mayor of Jerusalem to do favors for the Alumot firm, which built his home on Cremieux street in exchange for Olmert paying a lower than market price, by a few hundreds of thousands of dollars, for the house. That investigation is still on going.

It seems likely, according to the press, that the Olmertours scandal is the one that has the critical mass to indict the Prime Minister.

Olmert made his speech on Wednesday night from the lawn of the Prime Minister’s residence. He cited the achievements of his term in office and said he had no choice but to step aside and let someone else run the party.

Military analysts say it was the War in Lebanon II that ruined Olmert’s position as Prime Minister. The scandals come and go, but losing a war was something the public would never forgive.

One analyst said that the bar for proper behavior has been falling ever since Ariel Sharon rose to power. Sharon, long suspected of playing the system like a fiddle, amassed a huge ranch in the Negev, was involved in the Greek Island Affair, while Olmert was Minister of Tourism, and illegal fund-raising activities for his political campaigns.

Recently U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (R.Alaska) proved that it is not only the Israeli politicians who may have their hands in other people’s pockets. The much lauded U.S. President Bill Clinton, though, might have set the tone for political folly, by denying everything, as a good lawyer learns to do, from the “I didn’t inhale” to “I never touched her,” with the Whitewater scandal tossed in for good measure.

Clinton, a brilliant, charismatic, charming politician with a clear world vision, behaved like a Kennedy in the time when such behavior was passĂ©. Yitzchak Rabin never fell victim to Clinton’s influence in this regard, but Sharon did. Deny everything, and hang tough. Some pundits point to Sharon’s hand-chosen successor: Ehud Olmert, as proof of the low standards of behavior, plucking Olmert from near obscurity. Olmert he'd fallen so low in Likud popularity his odds of winning a Knesset seat were in serious doubt. He jumped into Sharon's camp when offered the chance in return for, some say, pledging his unabated support and a possible favor in the future.

Sharon was famous for tossing around political favors to garner support for his elections, either in the Likud, or Kadima, which he started once the Likud got away from his control. Sharon was not above appointing members of Israel’s notorious crime families to positions of power, as long as the bosses supported him. Olmert followed in the Sharon political tradition. One even hears the speculation that had Sharon been indicted, Olmert might have made a deal to pardon him.

Press reports speculate that Olmert will try a last ditch effort to push through a peace deal with the Palestinians before leaving office in hopes of deflecting all the bad press and leaving with a semblance of accomplishment. Some think this is a stunt from Sharon’s playbook. When under the threat of serious investigation Sharon decided to evacuate Gush Katif, shifting the media focus to Gaza and away from himself, confident that no Attorney General nor state prosecutor would go after him during such a crises. .

Today Gush Katif is a staging ground for rockets. Israel TV reports that as many as 70 % of the Gush Katif farmers are still unemployed three years after the evacuation. Olmert reportedly believed that he could also outlast the weak legal bodies.
Given the political process, of Kadima primaries and a possible new general election, a new Prime Minister may be long time coming. A lot could happen on the stage before the fat lady sings, even a surprise ending.