Olmert, a dignified end

He spared us the potential shame of having a PM indicted while in office.

olmert quits 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert quits 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
In the end, it was a dignified acknowledgement of an untenable reality. In a brief, and rather sad, address to the nation last night, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert briskly and proudly detailed what he considered to be the key achievements of his government, stressed that he still felt entirely capable of doing his job, insisted he had satisfactory answers to the numerous corruption accusations that have been levelled against him, but nonetheless bowed to the inevitable and signaled the end of his hold on power. In comments he made to journalists over the weekend, Olmert had spoken bitterly and resentfully about an ostensible deliberate effort within the police and state prosecution hierarchies to oust him, and in so doing raised fears that he would follow in the footsteps of former president Moshe Katsav, who turned viciously and publicly upon the law enforcement authorities, seeking to devastate their credibility to salvage his. But Olmert last night eschewed Katsav's undignified hysteria. He did refer to relentless attacks upon him, from his very first days in office, launched by self-styled champions of justice. But he leavened such criticism with firmly stated respect and fealty to the rule of law, and commendably stressed his pride in being a citizen of a democratic state in which a prime minister is not "above the law." His concern, he said, not without justification, was that the prime minister not be "below the law." Stoutly declaring his innocence, while admitting to having made unspecified mistakes down the years, he lamented that, as prime minister, he was denied the presumption of innocence afforded ordinary citizens, and that he had not been able to defend himself fairly against what he said were misrepresentations and the besmirching of his good name. His message, then, was that it was unfair for him to be forced out of office. And yet, having asked himself which was more important - his personal justice or the good of the state - there could be only one conclusion. On the path to that decision, of course, cold political calculation had played its part. Olmert last night preempted almost certain defeat, and deep humiliation, had he chosen to compete in the Kadima leadership vote on September 17. His reluctant announcement came only after even the demolition of the credibility of a chief witness in one of the corruption affairs, Morris Talansky, under cross-examination last week, had failed to revive his prime ministerial fortunes. It came after that weekend assault on the purported malevolent forces arrayed against him had failed to ignite public sympathy. But Olmert, in departure, has mercifully spared Israel the shameful potential ignominy of having a prime minister indicted while in office. And while this newspaper has argued that he should have stepped down after the failures of the Second Lebanon War, and that he was further compromised by the demands on his attention necessitated to fight for his good name, it has also been our consistent contention that there should be no rush to judgement as regards the corruption allegations. His announced intention to step down, therefore, serves to underline how high are the stakes when a serving prime minister is investigated for alleged criminal offenses. Olmert had said a little less than three months ago that he hoped to rapidly clear his name. He failed to do so, and consequently has now recognized the impossibility of his position. Attention, politically, now switches to the succession battle within Kadima. But attention legally turns to the police and the state prosecution. On a personal level, one can only hope that Ehud Olmert is indeed able to clear his name by providing the promised satisfactory responses to the allegations that have been levelled against him. If he is not now indicted, and, moreover, then convicted, however, Israel's law enforcement authorities will face the charge that they were indeed complicit in hounding an elected prime minister from office, with dreadful implications for Israeli democracy.