Analyze This: A controversial and problematic witness for the prosecution

The PM's interest must be weighed against the public's.

Talansky car 224.88 (photo credit: Yaakov Lappin )
Talansky car 224.88
(photo credit: Yaakov Lappin )
Shortly after the latest scandal involving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert broke, I was told by someone in Jerusalem whose family has had extensive professional dealings with Morris Talansky, the key figure in the affair: "This man is well known to us, and while he's an effective fundraiser, there are aspects of his character that are not trustworthy." Perhaps printing this kind of remark may be unfair to a man who, whatever else he might be, is clearly a committed Zionist and generous philanthropist to certain causes - one of which seems to be Olmert, to whom he has donated substantial sums of money over the years under circumstances still not entirely clear. But Talansky is also certainly no stranger to public criticism or, for that matter, involvement with the legal process. As The New York Times reported last week, the Long Island businessman who has emerged as a crucial witness in the Olmert affair has been involved in eight lawsuits over the past dozen years dealing with business disputes, at least one also involving a libel charge over accusations that he tried to solicit the use of force to resolve a debt issue. These observations and facts are indeed relevant, because the State Attorney's Office made the case to the Supreme Court that it be allowed to depose Talansky next week in a pre-trial hearing, to eliminate the risk that he may not be willing, or available for whatever reason, to return to Israel and testify against the prime minister if the current allegations against Olmert lead to a trial. Talansky himself has publicly dismissed the notion that he wouldn't come back here to take part in a trial, noting that he is a frequent visitor with two children living here, and considers Israel a virtual second home. All well and good - except that such claims compel an examination of his character in order to assess whether or not he should simply be taken at his word. Clearly, that's not the state's position. Olmert's attorneys, in appealing the effort to depose Talansky in the coming week while he is still here, argued to the Supreme Court that this puts an unfair burden on them to carry out an effective cross-examination of the witness under such short notice. One of the prime minister's lawyers, Eli Zohar, also argued before the court this week that allowing such testimony would constitute "a clear violation of the balance between the right to a fair trial and the public interest," claiming "the day Talansky testifies in court is the day the prime minister's trial will begin. We see the media all around and it is obvious... A situation is being created which will leave the prosecution no choice but to put the prime minister on trial. You can't make this kind of hullabaloo and then drop the whole thing." Not quite, if historical precedent counts for anything. Plenty of hullabaloo was made during the 1997 "Bar-On for Hebron" affair, yet the Attorney-General's Office ultimately decided to drop any case against then-prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, despite a police recommendation to indict. The same goes for the election-financing and "Greek Island" scandals surrounding Ariel Sharon, who in the end faced no charges related to those matters, although his sons weren't so fortunate. If Olmert and his attorneys are so concerned over the public impact of the allegations against the prime minister, one might think it more sensible for them to want Talansky to speak his peace as soon as possible, so the investigation can move along expeditiously to either an indictment, or the closing of the file. While that would be logical if their goal was simply to clear their client's name, either in court or before it ever reaches that stage, the problem here is the prime minister's dramatic statement two weeks ago that he would resign from office if indicted, even though he would not be legally obligated to do so short of a conviction. This declaration has arguably moved the goal posts somewhat, perhaps motivating the prime minister's lawyers to be more concerned at this stage at avoiding an indictment - any indictment - or just delaying it as long as possible, rather than primarily worrying about winning an eventual acquittal in court. There's nothing inherently wrong, and certainly not illegal, in this strategy for the prime minister. Surely he could even rationalize to himself that such delaying tactics are not only legitimate, but necessary to keep him in office as long as possible, for the good of the country. The country, of course, may have different ideas. Whatever they may feel about Olmert - or his potential successors - it's unlikely anyone feels comfortable with the idea of a prime minister distracted by police interrogations and search warrants, at a time when almost immediate decisions of national interest and security are waiting to be made. Thus it was unfortunate that Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz chose to tell Channel 2 this week that the current investigation against Olmert could continue for "months." Of course proper legal procedure must be observed - but these are exceptional circumstances that unquestionably require these procedures to be expedited as quickly as possible under the law. Yes, the prime minister's attorneys are likely to argue the entire way, as they have already done, that doing so tramples on the right to a fair trial that Olmert enjoys no less than any other citizen. But the state and the courts do indeed have to balance that consideration against the public interest - and by handing down its decision on Tuesday, we got a better sense of just how seriously the Supreme Court took that interest into account. [email protected]