Olmert times two 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert boarded a plane Saturday night for Paris to attend the inaugural conference of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's Union of the Mediterranean, Israelis could at least rest assured it was only their hard-earned tax-shekels paying his way - and not, say, the combined resources of The Franco-Israelite Friendship League, The Disabled Jewish Veterans of the French Foreign Legion and the local chapter of The Carla Bruni Fan Club.
However, until he attained the premiership, it appears that the financing of Olmert's frequent trips abroad was far murkier. So murky, in fact, that one has to wonder if the new police investigation involving his travel arrangements means the beleaguered prime minister has finally bought himself not only a one-way ticket out of office, but passage to a darker destination where the potential for disgrace is deeper than all previous suspicions directed his way.
It is too early to say whether the last allegations will actually lead to charges against Olmert, and if so, whether they will stand up in court. There's no question, though, that on several levels they pose greater political risk for the prime minister than any of the previous five police probes directed against him, including the Morris Talansky affair.
That's because neither in that matter, nor any of the other investigations, has Olmert been suspected in any way of committing offenses relating to theft or embezzlement.
Indeed, all of the allegations against the prime minister have until now fallen in that often legally ambiguous area where public figures benefit from their positions without either directly dipping into the public till, or taking funds or favors from supporters under false pretenses.
This is especially so regarding the Talansky-payments allegation, which both Talansky himself and Olmert's lawyers have already claimed came in the form of voluntary campaign contributions from abroad - a source of income that, in large part because of a failure by lawmakers to properly regulate the amount and timing of such payments, has posed similar legal headaches for all four prime ministers who preceded Olmert in office.
Such alleged offenses, even if proven true, can generously be interpreted as white-collar "victimless" crimes, in the sense that the only real victim is the general public (which is why "breach of public trust" is often among the charges filed in these instances).
But that isn't the case regarding allegations that Olmert, via the Rishon Tours travel agency, double- or tripled-billed several nonprofit organizations for flight expenses while on fund-raising trips for them abroad. What's more, the list of such organizations includes some of Israel's and the Jewish world's most respected charities and NGOs, including the Akim association for the rehabilitation of the mentally handicapped, the Aleh organization that cares for Israel's disabled, Yad Vashem, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the American Friends of the IDF.
Even the suspicion that the prime minister abused the trust of these groups (and their donors) for the personal benefit of himself and his family is the kind of politically radioactive accusation that Olmert, despite all his legal travails, has thus far avoided.
For comparison's sake, he need only look to the instant disgrace and resignation from public office that befell then-finance minister Avraham Hirchson when allegations first arose that he had embezzled funds from the National Youth League and the National Workers Organization.
Olmert's lawyers and aides have already put forth a possible line of defense for the prime minister in this matter, denying he had direct, detailed knowledge of the arranging and financing of these philanthropic missions abroad, pointing out the complicated nature of such transactions for someone who flies so frequently on the tab of others and focusing their counterattacks on the leaks to the media from police and other law enforcement sources.
However, any notion among his dwindling band of supporters that he might remain sufficiently unscathed to still compete in September's Kadima primary will surely now have to be put to rest by this latest revelation, no matter where it leads.
Last month, a source who once worked with the prime minister in arranging a trip abroad for philanthropic fund-raising (though not for one of the organizations mentioned above) told me that Olmert's "willingness to do some really non-self-serving things had become coupled with a real intense demand for super-VIP treatment. For example, I remember when he was once asked to take time out to do a day of fund-raising for a certain medical institution, which he generously agreed to do. But when one of his flights was canceled, he demanded that a privately-charted plane be provided - which was highly unusual in these kind of circumstances."
If it indeed turns out that the circumstances of his travel arrangements were even more unusual than that, Olmert's days of such VIP treatment, super and otherwise, are truly numbered.
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