The price that Israel can be expected to pay for Ehud Olmert's tenacious hold on the Prime Minister's Office is rising and spilling into many areas. Olmert's ebbing legitimacy definitely carries a price. He is making fateful decisions for the state under a fog of suspicion surrounding his decision-making process - negotiations with Syria, a prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah. The suspicion that Olmert might be willing to pay any political or defense-related price to provide achievements that could lessen the severe blow to his public image is nightmarish. Such a suspicion, well-founded or not, is sufficient reason for Olmert not to stay one more day in his seat if he truely wants to see Israel move toward peace.
The taxpayers may foot the bill for Olmert's efforts to stabilize the coalition under his leadership. First, there is the price Olmert will be willing to offer Shas, a party whose leadership has left a trail of convictions and demonstrated that cash is far more important than the letter of the law. The press reported that the government intends to transfer NIS 28.5 million to Shas' Maayan Hinuch Hatorani educational institutions, and another NIS 25.6 million to independent education institutions operated by United Torah Judaism.
Funding to ultra-Orthodox educational institutions is interpreted as a government attempt to buy the support of Haredi parties, but let there be no mistake: These are tiny sums compared to what hangs in the balance. The child allowances Shas is demanding will not only cost the treasury billions, it will also threaten Israel's war on poverty. Capitulation to Shas on child allowances jeopardizes the future of Israel, and Olmert's ability to resist such pressures now seems particularly vulnerable.
Loss of legitimate governance
But the heaviest price of Olmert's continued tenure is the threat of the loss of legitimate governance in the eyes of the voters. "Ehud Barak is the last person to talk about envelopes stuffed with cash," said Tal Zilberstein, Olmert's adviser, this week. He's a former adviser to Ehud Barak. "If he means to pull an Assa Kasher act [referring to the philosopher who drafted the army's Code of Ethics] and roll his eyes over moral issues, he will have a hard time staring down the press. And Barak knows exactly what I'm talking about."
And what exactly is Zilberstein talking about? Was he witness to Barak receiving cash-stuffed envelopes during his tenure as prime minister? Zilberstein refused to answer that question on Army Radio, but it makes no difference now. Zilberstein's message, even without precise details, was clear: All politicians are equally corrupt, so there is no reason to prefer one over the other on the basis of corruption.
An interesting line of defense - "No, I am not, heaven forbid, innocent," he says, "I am guilty, but no more so than others." One more reason to send Olmert packing. What is particularly worrisome about this line of defense is that Olmert claims to have cast his lot with the people, these people being you and I.
Olmert debases the very foundation of democratic government: legitimacy of the rule of the people, based on the people's belief that the government is guided by the best interests of the people. A government that acts on the basis of personal corruption is necessarily one that ignores the best interest of its citizens: It is a recipe for the destruction of democracy.
On March 28, 2006, the morning of elections for the current government, this column called on voters not to be apathetic to government corruption, nor to accept the argument that since everyone is corrupt, there is no point in scrutinizing or fighting political corruption. Not everyone is corrupt. The truth is there are honest politicians, for whom the best interest of the public is paramount.
Olmert, whose questionable reputation for personal honesty was already a public issue, was elected prime minister that day. Years later, and after the unprecedented harm done during his tenure, it's time to put an end to the damage, and not allow Olmert's line of defense to destroy the very foundations of government in Israel, and our belief that the administration of the nation could be different.
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