Analysis: Messer is the message

Olmert will be wary not to again publicly attack former confidant, who has now hired a PR firm.

messer 224.88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
messer 224.88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
This week, the spokeswoman for the National Fraud Unit - the police department investigating Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Morris Talansky, Uri Messer and Shula Zaken on suspicions of financial impropriety - told The Jerusalem Post that none of the media reports over the past two weeks had emanated from the highly secretive unit. "You have no idea how tight we're keeping this investigation," she said. Even State Attorney Moshe Lador thinks the press reports about the affair are largely inaccurate. Still, the main news outlets in Israel come up with daily scoops quoting anonymous law enforcement officials speculating about which direction the investigation is heading. On Monday, one of the main papers led with a story quoting an anonymous source saying police were focusing their probe on Olmert's tenure as industry, trade and labor minister in 2005. By the time the ink dried on that story in the afternoon, police had raided the Jerusalem Municipality for evidence linking then-mayor Olmert (1993 to 2003) to Talansky. One constant running through all the media, however, is the image of Uri Messer, Olmert's longtime associate and friend, as the prime minister's "dirty laundry guy" - his accounting henchman, if you will. Ask the average Israeli what comes to mind when he hears the name Uri Messer, and you will likely hear negativity on par only with Olmert himself. The public trusts politicians about as much as they like lawyers. Olmert himself added to this image of Messer when, during a late-night address to the nation last week, the prime minister saddled his old partner with prime responsibility for dealing with Talansky's "election campaign" fundraising. "I have no doubt that attorney Messer managed this money to the best of his professional ability, and I presume that he did so within the limits of the law," Olmert said. That statement followed press reports that Messer was cooperating with police on the probe and was considering turning state's witness. This week, Messer decided to strike back in an attempt to clear his name and undo the damage to his reputation. By hiring the services of the Rimon-Cohen-Shinkman private consulting firm, Messer has signaled to Olmert that he is not to be pushed too far, that the statement last week was hurtful, and that if Messer is made the fall guy for everything, his PR people could start leaking damaging reports about Olmert to an all-too-eager press. Messer has no interest in bringing Olmert down and doesn't want to use the PR firm if he doesn't have to, but the gun has been introduced into play. And since Messer has been the closest person to Olmert since the early 1970s, he believes he can definitely cause the prime minister serious damage. Olmert has no interest in causing his friend any more angst. Olmert's statement laying the blame on Messer may have been the correct short-term tactic to alleviate some of the pressure on himself, but the prime minister may have turned his closest confidant into a dangerous enemy. Both men will now want to turn back from the brink and focus on salvaging their public images. According to sources familiar with Messer, the man is going through a serious emotional crisis - he is a sensitive man and is not faking a psychological breakdown (Messer was caught on camera ambling across the Ayalon Highway two weeks ago). Messer has interests to protect, he is a family man, and he does not want to see any more damage done to his wife's career (he is married to deputy attorney-general Davida Lahman-Messer). His strategy now will be to try and remove his name from the nation's consciousness as Olmert's dirty-laundry guy as much as possible so he can start his life again. Olmert's lawyers' strategy, meanwhile, is to frame the case in terms of campaign financing, which is familiar to the Israeli public from past prime ministers. His media strategy will focus on "winning back the media," which some observers believe Olmert has lost. Since the Talansky affair broke, all the major media outlets - including Yediot Aharonot, which was considered friendly to Olmert - have run four- to five-page spreads every day exposing more aspects of the case. It is not just lone anti-Olmert crusader Yoav Itzhak anymore. Commentators who had previously called for Olmert to be protected because he was pursuing a peace deal with the Palestinians, and who were afraid of a resurgent Binyamin Netanyahu, are now openly attacking him. Ma'ariv's new editors are not as friendly to Olmert as Amnon Dankner was. Olmert's public relations strategy for the immediate future will be to fill the press with stories about how he has managed to get important gifts from the US and many pictures of him with world leaders visiting for Israel's 60th. He may even decide to announce large public works projects. Only time will tell what the fraud unit finds regarding allegations against Olmert, and whether Messer will turn state's witness. Olmert has no control over that. Ahead of next week's Knesset opening, which will be difficult for the prime minister and Kadima, Olmert will be advised not to attack Messer, who now has the means to respond unpredictably and harshly, but rather to try and fill the media with positive stories about his achievements. For more of Amir Mizroch's articles, see his personal blog Forecast Highs