/China Crisis / Cool Hand Olmert

BEIJING - The call from home woke Yoram Turbowicz, the prime minister's chief of staff. When the evening news is aired in Israel, it is 2 A.M. in Beijing. On the other end of the line, Turbowicz learned that Baruch Kra of Channel 10 reported that in the near future a criminal investigation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would be opened in connection with the sale of Bank Leumi. Turbowicz heard the news and decided not to wake Olmert. Let him rest, he thought. He will hear it in the morning. When his advisers met Olmert several hours later, he had already been updated.

Such news has an effect on the prime minister's trip abroad like a terrorist attack: the reporters in his entourage are no longer interested in the visit and are dealing only with the news from Israel. The editors at home want a response from the prime minister, and no one is interested in the diplomatic talks, the brilliant ceremonies and the bilateral economic agreements.

This time the story broke at a particularly inconvenient time: From the moment they got on the plane, the members of the prime minister's entourage spoke solely of the investigation and of the various corruption cases burdening his government and the threat they pose to the freedom of decision of his cabinet and of senior ministry officials. There was a feeling of paralysis in the air, and then came the Channel 10 news report, like a shot between the eyes, which seemed an attempt to ruin Olmert's trip abroad and once more label him "corrupt."

What to do? The prime minister's aides recalled that Attorney General Menachem Mazuz spent 90 minutes with him before Olmert departed for China, and did not even hint of a pending investigation of the prime minister. Cabinet Secretary Israel Maimon, who stayed behind in Jerusalem, learned from conversations he had with officials at the Justice Ministry that they were furious over the report. In response, the Justice Ministry said there was no decision to investigate, and the prime minister was pleased.

With this announcement in his corner, Olmert decided not to allow his rivals to enjoy humiliating him and opted for a show of self-confidence and 'business as usual.' He visited the Great Wall and climbed up in freezing cold with ease and confidence. Everyone was waiting for him to say something but he asked to wait for the briefing.

During the meeting with the press in the evening, Olmert was friendly. Do you feel persecuted? He refused to talk about how he felt. As for the report that he would be investigated, he said, "When I have something to say, I will do so."

Still, when pressed, he said his hands are clean in the Bank Leumi case. He also said the appointment of Jacky Matza as head of the Tax Authority had the approval of Mazuz.