Editor's Notes: The beginning of the end

Israelis' depleted confidence in Olmert's ability to safeguard the country in the wake of the war is now compounded by the evaporating faith in his propriety.

(photo credit:)
(photo credit: )
When the text of the first Winograd Committee report into the Second Lebanon War came crashing down on the Prime Minister's Office a year ago, staffers pored over it with mounting horror. After reading its devastating critique of a prime minister who had ordered a war without so much as checking that his army had a viable plan for winning it, it was obvious to them that the end of the Olmert prime ministership was near. There was simply no way their boss was going to survive this systematic demolition of his leadership. It was time to update the CVs and prepare to go job-hunting. But Olmert is made of sterner stuff. As all prime ministers do, he had constructed a bubble of certainty around himself. He simply would not allow himself to doubt that his handling of the war had been admirable, and that its key aims had been achieved: Hizbullah had been pushed back from the border and badly battered. A more robust international force had deployed in southern Lebanon. The north was now quieter than it had been for years. And anyone who begged to differ was willfully misguided and probably motivated by personal animus. Utterly secure in his self-belief, Olmert then set about cementing the political parameters for his survival - ensuring that Shas, the Gil Pensioners and Israel Beiteinu would remain in the coalition under his leadership but would bolt if he were ousted in a Kadima putsch, thus denying his Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni the wherewithal to mount a viable challenge. And he weathered the storm. Politically dead on the day that the report came out, he had miraculously risen just 48 hours later, when Livni issued her embarrassing non-ultimatum: I've told the prime minister he should resign, but he's not going to, so, er, that's that and on we all go together. A year later, those same staffers well remember how they doubted Olmert's survival then, and so they've been much more cautious this time. Yes, the future looks bleak, dire even, but this is Ehud Olmert, the indomitable political fighter, who barely scraped into the last Knesset and somehow wound up as prime minister. One thing's for certain, they agree: The man who would not be budged by a scathing report into a war he elected to fight - a war in which 160 Israelis were killed, in which a quarter of the country spent a month in bomb shelters or having fled their homes, in which Israel's enemies gleefully capitalized on our bitterly evident vulnerability to rocket attack - will not easily be shoved aside by a few hours of testimony from a minor New York Jewish financier, a once close friend who lost the faith when Olmert shifted from Likud ideologue to champion of the imperative for separation from the Palestinians. THE PROSECUTORS are being cautious, too. They too have learned lessons this past year. The case against former president Moshe Katsav was handled abysmally. He was going to be charged with rape. Two rapes. The case was wrapped up, damning. But then it wasn't. The evidence was problematic. A plea bargain would have to be reached. And then even that face-saving compromise collapsed, as the heavy-handed state attorneys were outflanked again and again by the nimblest defense team money could buy. So this time, State Prosecutor Moshe Lador is avoiding premature celebration. For eight hours in Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday, Morris Talansky, not so much American uncle as soured sugar daddy, set out a pattern of alleged Olmertian behavior so seemingly indefensible it was hard to keep track of all the legal swamps into which he was dropping the prime minister. Money laundering, breach of trust, the laws against public officials accepting gifts, party funding legislation - all these legal breaches and more appear to be ripe for potential indictment. But at the end of Talansky's incendiary day in court, Lador remained the personification of restraint and circumspection. Sounding a little like a lawyer for the defense, he reminded us that, at this stage, Talansky's testimony was meaningless. The witness had not been cross-examined. No conclusions could be drawn. The case could be closed, or it could lead in another direction, he said, taking care not even to utter the word "indictment." AND YET, for all the newly internalized caution, the writing is on the wall for Ehud Olmert. It may be thoroughly unfair that Talansky's unchallenged testimony was a critical factor in the shift, but a tipping point has passed. The sheer accumulation of corruption allegations that have swirled around the prime minister has had its impact, leaving a nation that already doubted his expertise now also doubting that Olmert is fit to run the country. Talansky's self-presentation as a patsy, a dupe, persuaded to open and reopen his wallet because he was star-struck by Olmert's personal charisma and the sense that here was the politician who could save Israel, does not sit easily with his track record of business acumen, and certainly seemed designed to minimize the likelihood that he too would find himself in the dock on bribery charges. But the prime issue is not why Talansky acted as he did, but rather why Olmert asked him to do so, and specifically the suspicion that the former mayor and minister illegally lived the high life for years at Talansky's expense. As confirmed in poll after poll, the public now so thoroughly mistrusts its leader as to overwhelmingly doubt the purity of his motivations when handling the interests of the state in areas such as negotiation with Syria. Its hugely depleted confidence in his ability to safeguard the country in the wake of the Second Lebanon War is now compounded by the evaporating faith in his propriety. And whatever the political calculation that led Defense Minister Ehud Barak to urge Wednesday that Olmert "disconnect" himself from the prime ministership because the job of running the country is simply too demanding for a man simultaneously fighting to clear his name, that concern resonates widely in an electorate that well knows how acute are the challenges Israel faces and rightly feels it needs a prime minister who can devote 100 percent of his attention, at a minimum, to the task. This week alone, Hizbullah cemented its hold on Lebanon, new reports emerged in the US about additional Syrian nuclear facilities even as Damascus ridiculed the notion that it would meet Israel's demand and pull out of Iran's orbit, Hamas tightened its partnership with Teheran, and the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a frankly terrifying report highlighting "serious concern" over military aspects of Iran's ostensibly peaceful nuclear program - referring to work on explosives, uranium processing and the design of missile warheads. It is sadly impossible, in a week like this one, for the prime minister - and his cabinet colleagues for that matter, the defense minister included - to have been able to focus all their necessary attention on those and innumerable other developments crucial to Israel's defense. Indeed, the newspapers have been full of reports of distracted leaders half-listening, or less, to security briefings, holding late-night domestic political strategy sessions, and passing corruption-case related notes to each other in cabinet meetings like inattentive schoolkids - scribbling while Rome burns. INSIDE HIS bubble, Olmert is doubtless certain that he has done nothing wrong, broken no laws, and that those who think differently are, again, motivated by personal animus. As was the case a year ago, he is fighting for survival day by day. Next week he expects to be at the AIPAC annual conference in Washington, shaking hands with presidential candidates, demonstrating his centrality, his near-indispensability. But the myth of his invincibility is being shattered, nonetheless. As my colleague Herb Keinon pointed out in a magisterial analysis in Thursday's Jerusalem Post, Olmert, the lawyer, has, somewhat ironically, damaged himself terribly here by placing his political future in the hands of his lawyers. It made perfect legal sense for that battery of expensive wise men to try, first, to stave off Talansky's court appearance, and then to forgo the opportunity to cross-examine the witness immediately. Similarly, it may make perfect legal sense for Olmert's longtime aide Shula Zaken to remain silent under repeated questioning, and thus avoid incriminating herself or her boss. Perfect legal sense, that is, if the aim is to delay the day of reckoning. But Olmert's political survival required anything but delay. He had looked Israelis in the camera eye on the night after Independence Day, and vowed that he had done nothing wrong. His prime task, thereafter, was to prove that. The onus was on him to refute the allegations, and to do so quickly, so that he could get back to running the country. His plea this week that there be no rush to judgement, that he be given the opportunity to refute Talansky's allegations, is eminently reasonable. It is his absolute right as a suspect. But it is belated for Olmert the politician, for a man with whom the public has gradually lost all patience.