Analysis: Losing his political magic

That Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is a master politician, perhaps the best the country has ever known, has become almost an axiom. How else to explain how the man, who was not a particularly beloved mayor of Jerusalem and who was No. 32 on the Likud list in 2003, rose to become Ariel Sharon's deputy and then prime minister? How else can one explain that, following the Second Lebanon War, a war that abysmally failed to live up to the country's expectations, leading to the resignation of both the chief of General Staff and defense minister, Olmert was the only one of the "big three" who led the country into the war to land on his feet? How else to explain the fact that Olmert withstood the damning interim Winograd Report, as well as its somewhat tamer final report? Or that he remained in office even though at times during his two-and-a-half year tenure his approval rating dipped below 10 percent, figures that make George W. Bush look like Franklin Delano Roosevelt? If Olmert managed to survive all that, one can justifiably ask, what has happened to his political magic? Why does it now look as though Olmert's 35-year political career is coming to a close, even though he may be able to win himself another few months reprieve? Because, simply, Olmert is now fighting a legal, not a political, battle. When the frames of reference were political, Olmert was in his element. He ran circles around Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni last May when she called on him to resign after the first Winograd Report. Before she had even made the call, he lined up his coalition partners and ensured that they would not join any government that he did not lead. Now, however, not only has the coalition math changed, the field itself has changed as well. Now he is playing on a legal field - with witnesses, testimonies, state prosecutors and judges - and they are much more difficult to manipulate than politicians. One irony in all this is that although Olmert is a lawyer, and has a legal mind, still he seemed to have made the crucial error of putting his political future in the hands of his legal team. When the existence of Morris Talansky and his claims first became known to the public earlier this month, Olmert decided to let his lawyers deal with the issue. And his lawyers - high profile and expensive ones - did what high profile and expensive lawyers do: They made their decisions on a legal basis, not a political one. This is the only way to explain why they tried to go to the High Court of Justice and block Talansky's pre-trial testimony. That may have made good legal sense, but it made for poor public relations because it sowed the seed in the public's mind that the prime minister had something to hide. But that failed gambit paled in comparison to what happened Tuesday, when Talansky testified for more than seven hours in Jerusalem District Court against the prime minister, talking about cigars, cash envelopes, $4,000 hotel suites, expensive pens and $25,000 Italian vacations. Again, it might have made good legal sense for Olmert's lawyers not to have cross-examined the witness - they did not have enough time to study all the material - but from a political point of view that decision was a disaster. Since there was no cross-examination, what is echoing in the public's ears is testimony of Olmert the hedonist, Olmert the recipient of envelopes full of cash. And that is what is going to continue echoing in the public's ears until Talansky comes back for the cross-examination in mid-July. If he does come back. The prime minister's defenders are left trying to manage the uproar by saying that his version of events had not yet been heard, and that Talansky was telling tall tales. "Wait," they are pleading with the public, "withhold your judgment until we get a hold of the witness." The problem, of course, is that the country - with a president recently forced out of office in disgrace, a former finance minister indicted for embezzling millions, and the previous prime minister's son sitting in jail for corruption, has little patience left for any politician, let alone Olmert, whose name had already been linked to a number of corruption allegations. The public will have difficulty giving Olmert the benefit of the doubt until Talansky returns, especially when they go to bed asking themselves - as many inevitably did on Tuesday night - why they are having such a difficult time making it through even half the month, while their prime minister has for years been living a life of excess. Even master politicians need the public, and by letting Talansky's testimony hang out there unchallenged, Olmert's lawyers did him a great deal of political damage. Both Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni realize this, which is why, fearful for their own images in the eyes of the people (whose votes they will need), they took initial steps Wednesday to topple the prime minister.