September 7, 2008 - remember that date. That is when the police recommended indicting a sitting prime minister for taking bribes, aggravated fraud and other offenses. In the future, perhaps teachers will set aside time on this day to explain the dangers posed by government corruption and law enforcement's responsibility to fight it wherever it occurs.
Publication of the police's recommendation last night formalized Olmert's status as a suspected bribe-taker - although that charge may not survive review by the Jerusalem district attorney, the state prosecutor and the attorney general. It is an issue of approach: The police opted to push the criminal charges as far as possible, whereas State Prosecutor Moshe Lador and Attorney General Menachem Mazuz are liable to prefer lesser charges that offer a greater chance of conviction. But even these lesser offenses are grave enough.
Legally speaking, Olmert's position has not changed much: He has gone from merely being a suspect to being a suspect whom the police have recommended indicting, but he is still not a defendant. From a public standpoint, however, he cannot remain in his post for as much as another minute. A prime minister who, according to the police, has defrauded institutions such as Yad Vashem, Akim and the Soldiers Welfare Association ought to go home in shame and hide in his corner. How will he represent Israel to the world? How will he dare make decisions?
The 850 words of the police's announcement offer only the merest glimpse of the work done by some 20 investigators, clerks and legal advisers in these two cases. But it is also worth recalling, to his credit, that the investigation began with a probe by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss.
Credit also goes to Police Commissioner David Cohen for having protected his investigators from the external pressures that often complicate investigations of this type. The commissioner is not personally involved in his investigators' work, but as their commander, and the person responsible for their future promotion, he has the ability to send messages, to hint, to wink. Some of his predecessors made it clear to investigators facing off against high-level suspects that "I'm not involved, your fate is in your hands." But Cohen is not of that stripe. "I knew," said one senior investigator involved in the case, "that I didn't need to look behind me, because the commissioner was covering my back."
The 200-page police summary mentions many other suspects and witnesses, including Morris Talansky, attorney Uri Messer and Olmert's travel planner Rachael Risby-Raz. The public version of the recommendations deals only with the civil servants, Olmert and his former bureau chief, Shula Zaken.
A draft indictment charging Zaken is expected within two weeks. Since she retained her right to remain silent, her hearing will deal only with legal issues, not factual ones. The case against Olmert does not depend on her, but could be helped by her testimony if she retracts her refusal to agree to a plea deal.
The police statement does not say much about Talansky's fate. Charging Olmert with receiving a bribe does not necessarily mean that Talansky will be charged with giving a bribe. It can be presumed that the case against Talansky will eventually be closed due to lack of public interest. Such a judgment is up to Mazuz and Lador, not the police.
In an instructive turnaround in Olmert's position, his spokespeople are now minimizing the weight of the police recommendations. Nine months ago, Olmert had only good things to say about the police practice of releasing a summary of the evidence they have collected. The bad guys at the time - police officials Yohanan Danino, Yoav Segalovich and Shlomi Ayalon - recommended closing one of the cases against Olmert, the one about the tender for the sale of Bank Leumi. That recommendation, which made Olmert happy, has still not convinced Lador. (Mazuz, who is not involved in that case, will hear what Lador has decided a mere hour before the decision is made public.)
This was a relatively rapid investigation - four and a half months, all told - and it did not progress in linear order. The dramatic climax came immediately, when investigators met with Talansky, Messer and Zaken. If the plot had a second climax, it would be the Rishon Tours angle, in which a routine check exposed surprising evidence against Olmert.
Olmert did not take advantage of the opportunities to refute the investigators' assumptions. He failed in his efforts to present a countervailing story. Perhaps he will be more successful with Jerusalem District prosecutor Eli Abarbanel, and if not, then perhaps with Lador or Mazuz. But for that to happen, there will need to be some breathtaking twist to this tale. At the moment, Olmert is inching closer to the defendant's box as he moves further away from the premiership.
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