Legal Affairs: Witnessing the premier's exit?

The prime minister's defense team now has until July 17 to build its case. But prosecution in the public and political arenas may have to cost Ehud Olmert his job by then

olmert smell my thumb  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
olmert smell my thumb
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ever since the testimony of Morris Talansky earlier this week, the legal aspects of the investigation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have been overshadowed by politics and public opinion. Olmert's lawyers, who, after the hearing, still tried to sound upbeat about their client's chances and what they would do to Talansky in cross-examination, have barely been heard from since. In the past, when it came to cases involving celebrity figures, defense lawyers fought their legal battles in the sphere of public opinion, taking advantage of the fact that the state prosecution refused to talk to the media. (Although it must be added that the police have always been notorious for leaking details of their investigations to the public.) But in the case of Olmert, as in the case of former president Moshe Katsav, public opinion, influenced by the media, has been overwhelmingly hostile to the suspects, neither of whom have been indicted so far. Olmert's case is unusual, in the sense that while the investigation was still underway, a witness for the prosecution testified in public in a trial procedure. No longer fed by leaks or unattributed reports, the public knows first hand - albeit from a source who may not be telling the whole truth - what Olmert and his friends, former bureau chief Shula Zaken and law partner Uri Messer, actually did. From the reports in the newspapers the day after the hearing, it appears that Talansky came across as being sincere in his testimony. He may have tried to paint his own motivations for the relationship with Olmert in pastel colors. But the fact that he gave his friend $150,000 of his own money and tens, or perhaps hundreds, of thousands more from other donors - and the appearance of Olmert's fundamental greed - seem incontestable. Even statements made after the hearing by Olmert's lawyers, Eli Zohar, Navot Tel-Tzur, Ro'i Blecher and Ron Shapira indicated that they accepted at least some of Talansky's basic claims. Blecher told Channel 1 that flying first class and sleeping in luxurious hotel suites may not look good to the public, but "in legal terms, what Talansky said does not indicate that any crimes were committed." Zohar, Olmert's top lawyer, went so far as to say that Talansky's testimony was "a story of campaign fundraising... that's where it starts and that's where it ends. It did not involve criminal acts. Our position will be heard in July," when Talansky returns to the witness stand. Olmert's lawyers have one aim in mind: to guarantee that their client will not be convicted in court, either by persuading the state not to prosecute, or by persuading the court to acquit. Yet Olmert has been hoping not only for exoneration but to continue serving as prime minister, perhaps even leading Kadima into the next election. After Talansky's testimony, based on public reaction and reaction even in the ethically-challenged political sphere, his hopes to continue his political career, or even leave a positive legacy for posterity, seem crushed. Olmert does not have to be convicted by a court of law in order to be deposed as prime minister. All it takes is a majority of MKs to bring down the government, either by a vote of no-confidence or approval of a law calling for new elections. From the rumblings coming out of the camps of Kadima's coalition partners, Labor and Shas, it may not take too long for that to happen. In fact, it is possible that it will happen even before Talansky returns to the stand on July 17 for cross-examination by Olmert's lawyers, or before an indictment is filed - assuming one is filed - a process which will still take several months. But even if Olmert is, indeed, forced out, the drama will not end. Like Katsav, who was forced to resign and still insisted on fighting in court to clear his name, Olmert and his lawyers will wage all out war to prove his innocence. During Tuesday's hearing, when Zohar asked for a postponement until July 17, State Attorney Moshe Lador asked that before the court adjourned, Olmert's lawyers present their basic thesis regarding the relationship between the prime minister and Talansky that would back their contention that the prime minister had not committed any crime. Zohar declined to do so, saying he needed more time to study the 30 files of investigation material compiled by police so far. Nevertheless, on July 17, he will have to try and prove his claim that all the money that Talansky and others gave Olmert was for his election campaigns, or that Talansky lied to the court about the monies he gave, or the purpose of these monies. There are different estimations as to what charges the state is considering filing against Olmert. The most serious ones mentioned are bribery, fraud and breach of faith. These may be difficult for the prosecution to prove. But there are other charges, including failure to report income, failure to register campaign contributions and failure on the part of a civil servant to report a gift, all of which seem, on the face of it, to be relevant. As long as there is a kernel of truth to Talansky's testimony, the defense will have its work cut out to make its case.