In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua explains the meaning of the term "foolishly pious:" one who sees, while praying, a baby drowning and instead of jumping into the water immediately to save him, hesitates to take off his phylacteries so they won't get spoiled in the water. Or one who sees a drowning woman but refrains from holding out his hand to help her because it is improper to look at her.
The prime minister and his aides behaved in a foolishly pious way last week when they refused to take Israeli business people on their trip to China, to avoid accusations of preferential treatment and spare themselves annoying probes on the part of the state comptroller.
The prime minister's aides explained to the journalists covering his visit in Beijing that the state comptroller's prying into Ehud Olmert's actions, as well as the police investigations of ministers and senior officials, could paralyze public service.
They argued that no one in the government apparatus would dare to make decisions from now on, for fear of being suspected of granting illicit benefits and of cronyism. To illustrate, Olmert's aides pointed to the empty seats on the prime minister's plane to China. They said that former prime ministers took industrialists and businessmen on such trips to advance Israel's economic interests. This is what other state heads do (for example Jacques Chirac and Angel Merkel). But the saintly, righteous Olmert refrained from doing so.
Olmert's decision proves something about his judgment and temper. To avert possible questions from the state comptroller, he chose to damage the country's interests. To demonstrate his annoyance with the legitimate, necessary inquiries into his public conduct, he decided to portray them as detrimental to the public good.
During the visit Olmert made an effort to reply with self-control to the questions about the inquiries, but his very decision to leave behind the businesspeople, who were initially supposed to accompany him, as his aides explained, showed what he was really feeling.
Olmert is angry at the law enforcement authorities. Had the decision to make do with a small entourage on the China trip been relevant, the prime minister would have kept it to himself. The enhanced publicity his men gave it prove that it was a demonstration. Olmert wished to use it as protest directed at the state comptroller, police and attorney general, and to accuse them of paralyzing Israel's ability to function.
The meaning of Olmert's message is that it is impossible to conduct state affairs honestly - that there is no golden path between a corrupt administration and a helpless one. As if seeing the big picture and keeping the rules of proper public conduct were incompatible. As if it were impossible to find dedicated civil servants and ministers who are good at their job and aspire to achievements, as well as to being decent and law-abiding.
Moreover, the decision not to take entrepreneurs on the trip to China and the explanation provided for it seem aimed at deterring the authorities from probing too deeply, because they would be harming the state's interest.
The oath of allegiance the prime minister takes on entering his post, and which he declares publicly, requires him to carry out his duty faithfully. One who deliberately does his job formalistically and is not totally involved in giving it his all, is betraying his duty.
Olmert's capability for making decisions regarding security issues was damaged by the shell shock he has been suffering since the second war in Lebanon. Now he is proving that his decisions regarding civic issues are also affected by irrelevant considerations. Israel needs a prime minister whose decisions are relevant and intended to achieve the best for it.
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