He Cannot Continue

Olmert has the right to a fair trial. But the prime minister must realize he has lost his ability to continue leading the state.

On September 15, 1983, during a cabinet meeting, then prime minister Menachem Begin said to his fellow ministers: "I cannot go on any longer." He did not explain his announcement but it did not come as a surprise: Three weeks earlier he announced his intention to resign as prime minister. That, too, was not a bolt from the blue: His performance and behavior in the preceding period hinted at what was to come. Begin was becoming increasingly weak; the efforts of cabinet colleagues and associates to get him to change his mind retreated in the face of the inner sense that convinced him he could not continue in his post. Begin demonstrated responsibility when he decided to step down. After the fact, there were those who argued that he, and those around him, took longer than necessary in taking that step because it was obvious even before that his performance had suffered. In any event, he remained sufficiently lucid and fair to end his term on his own.

With all due respect to the personal and circumstantial differences, Ehud Olmert is not behaving with responsibility and decency by insisting on remaining prime minister. He apparently feels he is capable of continuing to manage the affairs of state, but the conditions now surrounding his term in office obligate him to step down. Olmert has the right to a fair trial. He has the right to be considered innocent. He has the right to see out the investigation to the end and has the right to present his version of events.

In the case of former president Moshe Katsav, his behavioral pattern spoke for itself and left no doubt that he was unfit to continue as the symbolic head of state. The suspicions against Olmert are on a different level. It was right to demand Katsav's resignation, even before the drafting of an indictment against him. It is less obvious that Olmert should be asked to vacate the seat of government immediately. This is not only because his version of the events surrounding his receipt of monies from Morris Talansky deserves to be examined by police detectives, by the state's attorneys and by the court (if the case gets that far). It is also because election campaign contributions are not unknown in Israeli politics and thus Olmert's version of events is not prima facie untenable.

Even though the undersigned is asking that Olmert be left alone until the investigation is completed, the prime minister must realize he has lost his ability to continue leading the state. After the disclosure of the investigation's details, few people believe him, believe in him, lend credence to his statements and accept his claims that he is capable in his situation of focusing on affairs of state. His position has been undermined, even if he continues to bear the title of prime minister. He is incapable of leading the state into battle, if such were to become necessary, just as he is incapable of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians or Syrians. If he tries to initiate anything out of the ordinary, the criminal investigations against him will be exploited to undermine his authority to make or implement decisions.

The day-to-day running of the state is also vulnerable to the continuing erosion of his position resulting from the suspicions swirling around him. What then is the logic behind perpetuating the government in the conditions in which Olmert has trapped himself? Take note: This judgment relates to his practical ability to continue as prime minister, ignoring for the purposes of this discussion the moral dimension of his behavior (the accumulation of pretexts for police interest in his actions, the fear that he will obstruct the investigation, the silence of Shula Zaken).

Olmert is doing his best to come across as determined to remain in the Prime Minister's Office, but the cameras give him away, disclosing the false image he tries to project. In the urgent press conference he convened on Thursday evening, at the end of Independence Day, Olmert read a prepared statement that was decisive and carefully composed, but he looked like a broken man. After the memorial ceremonies that he attended on the eve of Independence Day, the cameras captured him embracing fans and associates (extras, planted for the occasion?), smiling at them and courting their support. When have melancholy memorial ceremonies ever ended with the prime minister's mad pursuit of popular support? This teaches us that Olmert is worried more about his own battle for survival than about the affairs of state. That, at least, is the impression he leaves. It is a small sample of the crisis in confidence that will accompany him from now on, and of the rift in the trust between him and the public.