'PM probe embarrasses Diaspora'

Olmert's woes raise questions about ties between wealthy US Jews, Israel.

Olmert adelson 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Olmert adelson 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
American Jewish leaders are overwhelmingly refusing to make public comments about the corruption scandals surrounding Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. A round of phone calls by The Jerusalem Post this week, indeed, found only one senior official willing to talk, and he insisted on doing so anonymously. A veteran Jewish establishment figure, he said American Jewry is embarrassed by the swirl of corruption around Ehud Olmert and other prominent Israeli public figures. American Jewry's official silence on the issue, he went on, "comes from a combination of shame and a desire not to pile on [more trouble], which wouldn't really serve a purpose." "But we're all embarrassed for Israel," he added. "It should be living up to an ideal." This official predicted that the silence would break if Olmert were still prime minister a few months from now. "Today, if AIPAC or JNF take a group to Israel, they will still seek a meeting with the prime minister, out of respect and to show their donors they have access." But if he were still in office come November, the official said, some groups might change tack. With both New York businessman Morris Talansky (in the cash-stuffed envelopes affair) and Las Vegas gambling czar Sheldon Adelson (financing the Yisrael Hayom daily freesheet that has been notably critical of the prime minister) central to Olmert's difficulties, meanwhile, new questions are being raised about the relationship between Jewish Americans and the Jewish state. Israel has had close ties with the US Jewish community throughout its history, but the fact that some wealthy American donors have extended their influence to Jerusalem's halls of power marks a crossing of what many Israelis see as a red line. The relationship benefits both wealthy US Jews, who get to feel important by hobnobbing with powerful politicians, and Israeli politicians, who can expand their limited pool of donors in Israel and who enjoy getting the royal treatment on trips abroad, said Matti Golan, an Israeli author who has written about the ties between US Jews and Israel. Israeli law forbids direct foreign donations to political parties and limits donations to individual politicians to about $10,000, depending on whether the money is meant for a local election, a national race or a party primary. But other activities aren't restricted. American donors can give money to political causes ranging from groups that promote settlements in the West Bank to Peace Now. In the case of Adelson, he launched Yisrael Hayom, a newspaper that strongly criticizes Olmert and is distributed free to hundreds of thousands of Israelis. The newspaper is part of what is widely seen as an attempt to replace Olmert with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Israeli political insiders see the paper as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu. Olmert's media adviser, Jacob Galanti, refuses to refer to it as a newspaper, recently terming it a "printed product." Adelson, a casino multibillionaire listed by Forbes last year as the third-richest man in America, has long had pull in Israel's corridors of power. In May, when he helped fund the Facing Tomorrow conference convened by President Shimon Peres for the state's 60th anniversary, he and his wife were seated alongside Olmert and other Israeli leaders. Nahum Barnea, one of Israel's most respected journalists, later referred in his column to the "gambling mogul from Las Vegas who bought my country's birthday for $3 million." "Is the country worth so little?" Barnea asked. Through a representative in Las Vegas, Adelson declined an interview request. Adelson's paper typically carries a front-page editorial blasting the prime minister and his government, with long investigative pieces inside on the misdeeds of Olmert and his cronies. Coverage of Netanyahu is generally benign. Newspaper officials did not return messages seeking comment. Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, would not comment on Adelson's activities, but noted that Olmert told The Atlantic monthly in May that there were US Jews "investing a lot of money trying to overthrow the government in Israel." Until his recent troubles, Olmert welcomed involvement by American Jews. In the years before he became prime minister, he was happy to accept donations from Americans, including Talansky. Former justice minister Amnon Rubinstein said American Jews "should give money to charity, to universities, to hospitals, but not to political parties." But across the Israeli political spectrum, it has become a commonly accepted practice. "Israel has been receiving donations from Diaspora Jews for 60 years," said Eliad Shraga, who founded the Movement for Quality Government in Israel. "As long as it's legal, I don't see a problem." Yossi Beilin of the Meretz Party said the involvement of American Jews, even those with views different from his own, is preferable to apathy. In the 1990s, Florida bingo magnate Irving Moskowitz set off a political storm by building Ma'aleh Hazeitim, a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem with the enthusiastic cooperation of Jerusalem's mayor - Olmert. Beilin was an unlikely defender. "I said I thought he was doing terrible damage, but I couldn't ignore the fact that he cares. I prefer someone who cares about Israel to someone who doesn't," Beilin said.