Editor's Notes: The prime minister against the state

Olmert's battle to clear his name depends on undermining the very institutions that the citizenry is required to respect. It's a fight that should not be waged from the Prime Minister's Office.

Flash back a year and a half. Raging and emotional, Israel's president Moshe Katsav, facing grave allegations of sexual misconduct, convenes a press conference at which he unleashes a flood of hysterical accusations against a dizzying array of those he says are out to get him. The media is looking to lynch him. The police is proving utterly susceptible to false allegations being levelled against him by all manner of disgruntled folks. The state prosecution hierarchy is biased and leaking like a sieve. And he? He, of course, is a paragon of tragically obscured innocence. Watching the dismal performance unfold - watching Israel's ceremonial first citizen urge his countryfolk, in his personal cause, to sacrifice their fealty to our country's prime institutions of law and order - is that other Israeli first among equals, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. That same evening, departing from the prepared text of his ultra-important address to the Herzliya Conference on the Iranian nuclear threat, Olmert demands that the president step down from office. Although Katsav has yet to be indicted - indeed, 18 months later, the case against him is still locked in legal limbo - Olmert declares that "the president cannot continue to fulfill his position and he should leave Beit Hanassi." The Herzliya audience, recognizing the validity of Olmert's plea, endorsing the premise that the president is staining his office and his people, applauds enthusiastically. Somberly, the prime minister concludes: "This is a sad day for the State of Israel," and then returns to his printed text. Olmert has, thus far, spared us a repeat of the raging Katsav show. To date, mercifully, he has not summoned the camera crews and the correspondents and indulged in an orgy of outraged assault on his despicable accusers and their poisonous motives. When he did address the nation, indeed, a little over two months ago, after Morris Talansky's cash-stuffed envelopes were first ripped open, it was as a dignified, statesmanlike man of integrity - a man with the utmost respect for the rule of law. He was sure he had done nothing wrong, he said. He had "never received a bribe" nor taken "an agora for my own pocket." He was confident the suspicions would be swiftly dispelled. But if that did not prove the case, and "even though the law does not obligate this," he would resign if he were indicted. But in the past few days, with the eruption of yet another alleged scandal, his lawyers, and to a lesser extent Olmert himself, have begun to veer into Katsav territory. In an impromptu briefing before he flew off to Paris and that awkward missed rendezvous with the elusive President Bashar Assad, Olmert declared that the leaks from the latest investigation were a breach of democratic norms. He was, he said, "astounded" by the distorted misrepresentations emanating from the relevant hierarchies. Starting to echo Katsav's tactics, he attempted to both turn the legal tables and encourage the public to make that journey with him, asserting that the result of such reprehensible behavior by the institutions of law and order "will only be public lack of faith in the enforcement authorities." His army of lawyers and spokespeople have been considerably more forthright and combative, speaking terrifyingly of "a coup" being masterminded against our democratically elected prime minister, and invoking all kinds of conspiracy theories by way of ostensible motivation, including the risible notion that the cops, state prosecutors, courts, media et al are in league to oust Olmert because only thus can they be rid of his uncomfortably reformist Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann. As those lawyers this week determinedly set about dismantling Talansky's testimony, they seemed wrong-footed by the new Rishon Tours double-billing allegations - with too many legal and PR cooks spoiling the Olmert-is-blameless broth via a range of sometimes contradictory explanations. One claimed that Olmert's travel agency sent out multiple bills to the various nonprofit groups on whose behalf he flew to speak because it wasn't clear which of them was going to foot the bill. Another asserted that some of the double-billed flight funds were used to cover other expenses. Olmert's complaints about tendentious police leaks are well-founded. And as with the Talansky allegations, which stood unchallenged until this week's cross-examination, there should be no rush to judgement on the specifics of this latest scandal. However improbable it may seem, Olmert may be able to produce a legitimate explanation that both clarifies the Rishon Tours billing system and leaves him clear of income tax and other breaches. The trouble is that those who have wanted to believe in Olmert's absolute propriety and complete innocence heartfeltedly endorsed his May 8 hope that his storm of legal trouble would pass "as swiftly as it came." Yet the storm has not passed. It has deepened. Olmert's legal advisers have not worked to resolve the allegations as speedily as possible but, rather, to stall and play for time. His aides, to put it mildly, have not always conducted themselves under police investigation in the manner one would expect of colleagues determined to clear the unjustly muddied name of an honest man. And, most problematically, the defense strategy now evidently involves undermining the institutions of the state. Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz - a man in the deeply unenviable position of heading Israel's state prosecution during a period when its prime targets have been senior members of the government he simultaneously serves as chief legal adviser - asserted this week that it was not his task to seek the suspension of a prime minister who has not been charged with any offense. "It is not the job of the attorney-general to appoint prime ministers or to dismiss them," Mazuz said. It was rather, he opined carefully, a matter for the prime minister himself, and for the public and the political echelons. But there are, in fact, legal provisions that a different attorney-general might invoke to press for a prime ministerial suspension. And there are, of course, prime ministers who would not have needed prompting: Yitzhak Rabin, resigning in 1977 when confronted with the minor infraction of his wife's having maintained a dollar account in the US after he ended his term as ambassador there; Golda Meir, stepping down after the Yom Kippur War. THE ISRAELI public drew its conclusions about Prime Minister Olmert during and after the Second Lebanon War. Memorably, a snap opinion survey on Channel 2 last year, taken by telephone on the day the Winograd Committee had issued its damning preliminary indictment of leadership ineptitude, found that precisely zero percent of those polled would choose him again as their leader. This week's "exchange" with Hizbullah was so wrenching a choice, balancing a capitulation so totally, self-defeatingly stupid against the upholding of uniquely Israeli values, notably a commitment to the soldiers in our people's army that is incomprehensible to those who do not live here. But this is the most ruthless of neighborhoods, as the massed, hate-filled, bloodthirsty celebrants of Samir Kuntar's release reminded us. And when the message conveyed by our freeing of a brutal and unapologetic murderer of women and children is that kidnapping our troops, far from carrying such terrible consequences as to be unthinkable, pays off handsomely even if the victims are dead, a necessary comfort would be the certainty that everything has now been done to ensure that we are infinitely better organized and protected against further such assault. Yet there can be no such assurance so long as the same failed prime minister is still at the helm. The National Security Council that was supposed to help compensate for his strategic inexpertise remains marginalized. And the one Winograd panelist who has seen fit to speak out rails despairingly against lessons unlearned and recommendations unimplemented. The Olmert of 2006, moreover, was at least a full-time prime minister. In 2008, he is a multiple police suspect, too, and necessarily distracted as a consequence. OLMERT SHOULD have resigned after the war in dignified recognition of his mishandling of it, as did his chief of General Staff and his defense minister. He did not. He should have suspended himself when unable swiftly to clear his name in the Talansky affair. He did not. Now, he asserts that he is clean and the law enforcement authorities are dirty, that his plight is a consequence of a corrupted apparatus. But whatever its merits, he must surely recognize that such a fight, Olmert vs Israel, whose success depends on undermining the very institutions of state that the citizenry is required to respect, cannot be conducted by a serving prime minister, a holder of high state office. He should look back to what he had to say in that context, in January 2007, about Moshe Katsav.•