Analyze This: Talansky's complicated figure

Caught between 'Uncle Moish' and Mr. Talansky.

Talansky  media 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Talansky media 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
A small but telling moment came during the cross-examination of Morris Talansky at the Jerusalem District Court on Monday. It occurred while he was being questioned by Navot Tel-Tzur, one of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's lawyers, about $100,000 that was transferred in 1999 from one of his accounts to that of Uri Messer, the prime minister's former law partner. Talansky had claimed to the police he had no memory of this transfer, and that it appeared Messer may have overstepped the authority granted him earlier that year when he had represented the witness in the purchase of a Jerusalem apartment. Tel-Tzur then handed Talansky a document and asked, "Do you read Hebrew?" "Uhhh, no," replied the Orthodox Talansky, "not modern Hebrew." When Tel-Tzur pointed out that Talansky had signed off on granting Messer full "power of attorney" to conduct such transfers, the witness merely shrugged, replied, "If that's what it says," and claimed yet again to have no recollection of these events. Surely any Diaspora Jew or recent immigrant to Israel who has purchased an apartment here and had to rely on a local attorney to parse the language of official documents written in the local lingo could sympathize with Talansky on this point. At moments like this, he does indeed come off as the innocent Diaspora Jew abroad who only wanted to help out an Israeli leader he once admired with some extra cash for his campaigns, and instead found himself mired in the filthy mud of modern Israeli politics. This is the image that Talansky has sought to project throughout this affair, both when under official interrogation and in his sometimes amusing interactions with the local media. In a similar vein, his Israeli nephew, the noted film director Joseph Cedar, contributed a piece this week to Ha'aretz portraying his "Uncle Moish" as simply the kind of professional fundraiser sometimes unfairly disparaged as a "schnorrer" by some ungrateful Israelis, but one who should be hailed as "the Middleman, the charismatic man who manages to bring people together and make everyone feel good. This is the man who doesn't get any glory, respect or appreciation, who is forced to do the grunt work that ultimately benefits everyone." Yesterday, though, the prime minister's attorneys did a pretty efficient job of shredding this benign portrait of Talansky as a purely selfless operator. Not only did they bring out document after document, some in his own (English) handwriting, showing that he had personally authorized several payments to Messer; there were others requesting his bank here to make a series of payments back to accounts Talansky himself controlled in the US, sometimes dividing them into separate transfers of differing amounts, despite the fact that they were heading to the same destination on the same date. These dealings have nothing directly to do with the Olmert affair, but it's clear why the prime minister's attorney was asking about them. This is the kind of behavior usually associated with money-laundering for purposes of tax evasion. Tel-Tzur said as much to Talansky, eliciting in reply only his increasingly implausible claims that he had no memory of these financially substantial dealings. The Talansky that emerged from Monday's testimony was neither the slightly naïve schnorrer nor the middleman fundraiser who just wants to "make everyone feel good" - nor even the kind of ideologically-driven foreign donor also familiar to Israelis, such as Avraham Moscowitz, the US Bingo king who supported Olmert's efforts to settle Jews in east Jerusalem when he was the capital's mayor. Instead, the prime minister's lawyers painted Talansky as the type of character right here at home in Israel: the wheeler-dealer, the "askan" who's always looking for the opportunity to grab an advantage for himself, to shave off a little (or a lot) for himself on the side, even in perfectly legitimate business dealings. This is more the picture of Talansky that has emerged in the coverage by the New York media of his financial dealings on his home turf, including the multiple business-related lawsuits he has been involved in. There are also those in Jerusalem who have dealt with him in various capacities and who concur with that view of Talansky. Yet there is also no shortage of people here and abroad who share his nephew's more benevolent judgment of his uncle as an essentially big-hearted, well-meaning man, whose philanthropic efforts have done a lot of people a lot of good. For example, sitting in Talansky's corner in court this week as an adviser is the highly respected former AIPAC director (and Justice Department official) Neal Sher, who speaks warmly of the good works done by his old friend Moish over the years. There's no reason, of course, that this clearly complicated figure can't contain both characters - Uncle Moish and Mr. Talansky - in his oversized personality. And in order to destroy his credibility as a witness, it's natural that the prime minister's lawyers are focusing on bringing Mr. Talansky to the fore, the shady character who was ultimately involved in this affair for his own self-interest and whose word cannot be trusted. Still, if this is a sound legal strategy, it's somewhat less so in terms of the political aspect of the prime minister's predicament. What does it say, after all, about Olmert's own judgment and sense of ethics, that as mayor and senior minister he and his closest associates conducted sensitive financial dealings and repeatedly took money from such a character as this Mr. Talansky? Olmert's lawyers may have a won a battle on his behalf in court this week - but in his war for political survival, the prime minister may ultimately regret that to do so, they had to tear down the image of Uncle Moish. [email protected]