Olmert's Warning Sign

Like many gamblers, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert never knew how to draw the line around his pursuit of profit.

Last month, an interministerial panel operating under the auspices of the Justice Ministry approved Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's request for a NIS 30,000 reimbursement to partially cover the legal fees accrued during his testimony before the Winograd Committee. Not only is this sum just one-fifth of the total amount the prime minister requested, it pales in relation to the total cost of the legal advice he received prior to and during his appearance before the committee. As such, Olmert is the victim of an injustice, as he has been forced to cover significant expenses incurred in an effort to defend himself against claims that he performed his job as prime minister inadequately.

In contrast, Olmert is bearing the full cost of the battery of lawyers he hired to aid him in the criminal investigations of which he is currently the focus. There is a certain poetic justice to this state of affairs: The man who did not know how to overcome his greed finds himself hemorrhaging huge sums of money out of his own pocket in order to save himself from the consequences of the act into which this weakness led him.

The sad predicament in which the prime minister finds himself is a warning sign that ought to be flashed before the eyes of every politician - particularly those in Kadima, Labor and Likud vying for Olmert's chair. In the public arena, Olmert conducted himself like a gambler: He coveted money, amenities and the good life, and he got what he wanted in ways that are now being scrutinized by the police and the attorney general. He did not walk the straight and narrow path in satisfying his lust for money, because that road was cordoned off by laws, rules and regulations. Therefore, he took detours and chose the circuitous route.

The very fact that he decided to conceal his deeds attests to his understanding that his behavior was improper. He convinced himself that he was right and the system was flawed, that he acted no differently from other politicians of his acquaintance, and that he was legally rewarding himself for his life of service to the public. In his heart, though, he knew that the steps he was taking would invite scrutiny.

Otherwise, he would not have chosen to accept donations in cash-filled envelopes, delivered only when he was alone. Nor would he have left all his travel arrangements in the hands of an unknown agency in Rishon Letzion. If he had nothing to hide, Shula Zaken would not persist in her refusal to cooperate with investigators. Uri Messer would also feel free to tell the police all he knows if Olmert were not trying so hard to conceal the way in which he amassed frequent flier points and cash, and presented demands to organizations that sought him for speaking engagements abroad.

Like many gamblers, Olmert never knew how to draw the line around his pursuit of profit. As he climbed the political ladder, he grew ever more confident in his ability to extract goodies from his positions. Despite his shrewdness and knowledge of the workings of public life, he did not internalize the deep-seated lesson: The higher up the ladder you climb, the more people are waiting to ambush you down below. And once Olmert reached the summit, someone was predictably there to lift the cover off the box containing his shady dealings.

Olmert cannot escape the saddening conclusion that he brought this calamity on himself, with his own hands. This is not the only reason he was forced to relinquish the prime minister's chair, a position of power to which he had aspired his entire public life. He lost his standing as a leader; his name became synonymous with a deceptive politician preoccupied by his personal well-being; his family was battered. And ironically, he must now deplete the fortune he amassed in order to defend himself against charges stemming from the improprieties he committed in attaining that fortune.

Olmert's conduct is not solely his personal business; it has consequences that reverberate throughout the public domain. It raises the question of how a man who did not know how to weigh his steps in his personal affairs can be qualified to run the affairs of the state. It also begs the question of to what degree the faulty judgment and flawed moral standards that guided his contacts with Morris Talansky and the owners of Rishon Tours were reflected in his dealings with Hassan Nasrallah, Vladimir Putin and George Bush.

Olmert's end justifies asking similar questions about Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu and perhaps other politicians who yearn to sit in the prime minister's chair. Does their conduct to date indicate that one day, they too will find themselves in the same spot where Ehud Olmert is now collapsing?