Four Investigations and a State

So far, Olmert has proved that a single criminal investigation against him does not interfere with his performance, even if it dulls his mood. Four simultaneous investigations, however, are another thing.

After the holidays, relations between Ehud Olmert and the state will reach an unprecedented condition: All signs point to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz instructing the police to begin investigating both the Industry, Trade, and Labor Ministry's Investment Center as well as the Small Business Authority, which would bring to four the number of criminal investigations facing the prime minister.

So far, Olmert has proved that a single investigation does not interfere with his performance, even if it dulls his mood. Four simultaneous investigations, however, are another thing. From the public's perspective, there is a substantial difference between critical reports issued by a controversial state comptroller and a criminal investigation. The premiership as an institution will absorb yet another mortal blow, and Olmert will become a double lame duck, limping on both legs, all of his actions viewed through the prism of his standing before the law.

Even a seasoned politician like Olmert will find it very difficult, practically as well as emotionally, to focus on affairs of state while being forced to spend long hours preparing for questioning. His energies, too, are limited; even his day has only 24 hours. And that is where Olmert's legal concerns turn into a major problem for the state. The state will have a prime minister suspected of committing crimes four times, who is very, very part-time and unable to make important decisions.

According to Olmert's associates, this is only the beginning. On the positive (from his perspective) assumption that the governing coalition will continue, things will deteriorate if one of the investigations turns into an indictment. The horror-show scenario is on the wall: Olmert remains in office while his trial is held in full public view, to the glorification of the State of Israel. After all, the Basic Law on the Government does not require him to resign unless convicted of an offense involving moral turpitude, and only if a majority of MKs vote in favor.

Perhaps the earth will tremble, but if anyone is capable of surviving even this kind of absurd situation, it is Olmert. After all, the law is on his side. He has time. There is no need to rush into resigning. That would result in the dissolution of the cabinet, perhaps even to unwanted new elections. There are other options. He could take a vacation at some point, he could consider temporary incapacitation. There is always someone who could be persuaded that the country's security- and foreign-relations circumstances do not allow the cabinet to resign "at this time." What, do you want Benjamin Netanyahu instead?

One need not follow the scenario to its end to realize that something is a little fishy here. The only question is what. Is the problem Olmert, a serially corrupt prime minister, or is it a system that makes it so easy to disrupt the government with a series of negligible complaints against the prime minister?

There is no simple way to decide between these two positions, given the web of interests and the spin on both sides, but one thing is clear - we can't go on like this. After four consecutive prime ministers who led the country under a cloud of criminal suspicion, it is obvious that there is a trap here that must be sprung. On the one hand, Olmert cannot be asked to resign before being convicted, since that violates the rules of justice and the spirit of the Basic Law on the Government. On the other hand, he cannot be permitted to continue limping lamely until 2009: No country in its right mind can permit itself such powerlessness. A balance must be found between two contradictory public interests: equality before the law, and the need for a prime minister capable of action.

What's the solution? The easy answer is to select a prime minister who is above all suspicion. Experience, however, teaches that politicians with clean hands are a rare breed not designed to reach the top, and even if they are, there will always be someone to reveal the skeleton in their closet. The second answer is to point the finger at the attorney general, as always. But the cases of Ariel Sharon and Olmert prove that the AG and the AG's aides are not capable of dealing with the problem in a reasonable amount of time, and in essence they perpetuate the problem.

So what's left? To move the issue into the public sphere; to push the political system (and above all the Labor Party) into dissolving the government - if not now, then when the first indictment is issued. Otherwise, we will reach the fourth option, the one from Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann's school of thought - a law that would prohibit the initiation of an investigation of a prime minister except for extremely serious offenses (rape? murder?). In other words, a law that would place the prime minister above the law. And that, it would seem, is a sentence the public cannot bear.