War of the Ehuds

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Credit: Amos Biderman

21st-century Israeli journalism, which apparently has no sacred cows, still has a sacred rule it inherited from traditional journalism: distinguish between fact and rumor.

Lacking convincing proof that would confirm the smoke behind the fire, media outlets must not publish a rumor. The fix is to not publish the rumor itself, heaven forbid, but rather the fact that a rumor is lurking about.

That’s how most media outlets work, but some exceptions give the authorities and the public a choice — to crosscheck sources or to nail the libel merchant on a cross.

Ehud Barak’s surprising sprint to wealth is a fact; the sources of his money stir rumor. He is innocent until proven otherwise, but public suspicion of him is based on unsated curiosity

How were his investments so successful? Were the secret pieces of advice he sold to his clients worth tens of millions of dollars, when the public advice he gave Israel as a minister caused more harm than good?

Ehud Olmert also heard the Barak rumor. He heard it and let it be heard.

Recycling a rumor in a conversation with an accomplice does not make it fact. As such, broadcasting a recording of whispers is not enough. All who heard the secret tape or read the transcript knows how many errors and slanders they contain.

Until a recording is revealed, the victim does not know what was said on it and can’t defend himself against a charge made behind his back. At most, the recording provides raw intelligence, far from investigative material for an indictment and conviction.

Olmert’s claims about Barak in a recorded conversation with former Olmert bureau chief Shula Zaken are therefore just a smear that only a legal process can clear up. Now, thanks to Zaken’s U-turn, Olmert’s surprising appeal in the Morris Talansky bribery case and the public service provided by Channel 10 in airing the recording, this issue can no longer be ignored.

Like Olmert and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Barak is a master of ugly rumors when it doesn’t occur to him the things he says might get out, such as testimony he gave to the state comptroller. His specialty is the double negative — “I am not sure that he is not ....”

Barak and Olmert were both born in the early 1940s, children of the austerity period. They’ve always wanted more and are identical in their aspirations but differ in their converging paths — one via the military brass, one via power politics.

They share a worldview that casts doubts on money, not about the money itself but about amassing cash, because real estate is safer. They covet leadership and collect apartments. In the late 1980s they were both the next things in politics, MK Olmert in the Likud party, and General Barak in Labor.

When Olmert accuses Barak of taking kickbacks from arms deals, he creates a causal connection between four facts: Barak was defense minister, arms dealers earn well, the defense minister approves the sale (and purchase) of Israeli arms, Barak became rich before his return to the defense ministry in 2008 and after his departure last year. Every detail is correct; proof connecting them is lacking.

In practice, the defense minister is not the only ruler of his ministry. The ministry has rules and regulations, checks and balances.

There is a director general. There is a head of the division that sells arms to other countries. There is the head of the acquisitions division, who buys arms from foreign and Israeli sources.

There is a comptroller for the defense apparatus. And there is someone who appoints all these people — the defense minister, and Barak systematically rid the key players left over from his predecessors Shaul Mofaz and Amir Peretz.

Thus, even if it were ridiculous to think that Barak, or his predecessors or successors in the job, were dishonestly deciding that the air force would purchase Italian trainer jets rather than South Korean trainer jets, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that in Israel and abroad many people innocently got this impression and planned their actions based on this image.

They sought ways to find out about discussions at the top and how to influence decisions. The two assets — information and influence — were worth a lot of money.

Barak is a big believer in the power of the broadcast word. What was said on television and remains hanging in the air without being countered with determination and authority can become the accepted truth.

Thus, Barak cannot suffice with a derisive response to the Zaken-Olmert recording. This time it’s not enough to dig in behind a formulaic comment. He has to sue Olmert for libel lest the public determine that Olmert knows what he’s talking about and even pretends to back up the words of the Mossad chief.

And even if Barak makes a business calculation and coolly decides to relinquish his honor, the state is not permitted to let Olmert’s accusation float in the air. Olmert and Barak were senior partners responsible for Israel’s security for a year and a half, from the attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor to Operation Cast

Lead in Gaza.

A country that ignores without clarifying or condemning a bribery allegation by the prime minister against the defense minister tacitly confesses the guilt. It’s an injustice to Barak and a terrible suspicion about the innocence of the entire security apparatus. Either Olmert should provide his testimony and documents or withdraw and apologize.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein should offer Olmert a deal, given that two business-craving entrepreneurs are involved: Provide incriminating evidence and not just rumors about Barak in exchange for not being tried in the new case of obstruction of justice and witness harassment, which are based on the Zaken tapes.

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