Legal Affairs: The PM's resignation - and the people's lack thereof

It is hard to imagine that the state prosecution won't indict Olmert - for something.

Olmert worried 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski  [file])
Olmert worried 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's announcement that he would resign from office as soon as his party, Kadima, elected his successor has in one fell swoop changed the atmosphere throughout the country, at least for the time being. As new allegations emerged against Olmert, beginning with the Talansky affair, public anger and frustration also mounted. It reached new heights on May 27, following the first day of key witness Morris Talansky's court testimony. That day put the final nails in the coffin of Olmert's term as prime minister. But even worse was to come with the revelations by the police and prosecution that Olmert was suspected of double-billing non-profit organizations for trips he made, during which he spoke on their behalf. The extra money that he skimmed, according to the allegations, went to finance private family trips. In the past month, there have been three more major developments in the case. The first was Talansky's five-day cross examination by Olmert's lawyers, headed by Eli Zohar. The second was the bitter attack against the police and state prosecution that Olmert lodged two weeks ago in three Hebrew dailies. The third was Olmert's resignation statement last week. From the start of his term in office, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz has insisted that suspicions of corruption on the part of a public figure must be dealt with not only in the legal arena, but also in the political and public ones. For once, the public and the political echelons acted on his words. THE MAN most responsible for Olmert's announced resignation was Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Barak gave Olmert an ultimatum: Either the prime minister would allow Kadima to choose a new party leader - who would ostensibly replace Olmert immediately - or he, Barak, would throw his support behind a Likud bill calling for new elections. Whether Barak was motivated by authentic principles, or saw his behavior as a way of appearing before the public as a fighter against corruption, hardly matters. His actions represented the overwhelming will of the public. And so, through Barak, the public had its way. The calmer atmosphere in the country over the past week stems directly from this victory. But it will not be long before the public refocuses on the Olmert affair which, from now on, will be dealt with as a primarily legal matter. The first milestone will be whether the state prosecution indicts Olmert, and if it does, surrounding which of the six cases under investigation and on what specific charges. In trying to answer these questions, we have little more to go by than the unsubstantiated information that some interested parties, more than likely the police or the state prosecution, have leaked. For example, a few days ago, there were reports that the prosecution would file indictments against Olmert in the Talansky and double-billing affairs some time in September. Based on the past record of the two law enforcement agencies, these reports ought to be taken with a grain of salt, especially if one takes into account the pace of the investigations into the other Olmert affairs. The first investigation - the only one the police has completed so far - is the Bank Le'umi affair, in which Olmert is suspected of changing the terms of a tender for the sale of the controlling interest in the bank to suit his friend, Frank Lowy. That probe officially began on January 16, 2007. On November 30, 2007, police completed their investigation and handed over the material to the state prosecution with a recommendation not to indict the prime minister. Eight months have gone by since then without a final decision. On September 24, 2007, State Attorney Eran Shendar ordered police to investigate allegations that Olmert had received a bribe from the developer of a residential project on Cremieux Street, in return for helping him obtain favorable terms from the Jerusalem Municipality. Almost 11 months have gone by, and Olmert has not yet been questioned in this matter. (The questioning of any prime suspect is usually conducted towards the end of an investigation, after police have questioned all or most of the witnesses.) On October 14, 2007, Mazuz ordered police to investigate Olmert's conduct while serving as minister of industry, commerce and labor in 2003-2006. One investigation involved allegations that he had made political appointments, the other that he had personally intervened to help clients of his close friend, Uri Messer, obtain government grants for industrialists interested in building factories in Israel. Almost 10 months have gone by since then, and Olmert has not yet been questioned. THE STATE prosecution has been heavily criticized by the public and by legal experts for the length of time it has taken it to complete these and other investigations. In the most notorious case of all, MK Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) has been under police investigation for more than 10 years. The criticism of the state prosecution, coupled with the public fury at Olmert which came to a head over the Talansky and double-billing affairs, will likely work against the prime minister. Olmert is not the only one who has something at stake in these investigations. So do Mazuz and State Attorney Moshe Lador. The public will not easily accept another long, drawn-out process of investigation, particularly if it is not capped with an indictment. Mazuz knows all too well how the public reacted to his decision to reach a plea bargain with former president Moshe Katsav. Mazuz and Lador have pretty much painted themselves into a corner, but this is not necessarily their fault. On the assumption that they had substantial cause to investigate Olmert, they did so. Except for open-and-shut cases, investigators are not supposed to know the outcome of an investigation at its outset. The police and the state prosecution have not said in public (except through anonymous leaks) that Olmert is guilty. But in a country like Israel, these matters have a dynamic of their own. Investigations of public figures create expectations. Expectations create demands. It is therefore almost impossible to imagine Mazuz and Lador closing the Talansky and double-billing files without indicting Olmert - whether in September, or somewhat later. If Olmert is indicted regarding these affairs, there is a question as to what the prosecution will do about the other investigations. It will likely close the Bank Le'umi investigation, and could probably get away with dropping the political appointments allegations. But the suspicions connected to the Cremieux St. and Investment Center (Uri Messer) affairs are more serious, and cannot be abandoned just because Olmert is facing other charges.