He Doesn't Know When to Leave

Nothing is sacred to Olmert-certainly not the good of the state. He is the supreme embodiment of two complementary terms: guilt and shame.

The assault on the law enforcement agencies by Israel's highest-ranking suspect, Ehud Olmert, over the cash-filled envelopes and double-billing cases, is classic Olmert behavior. No one can match him when it comes to escalating a problem into a provocation, instead of easing it toward a compromise. He always wants to hit harder, have the last word, teach his opponent a lesson. Not for him, the old adage "if you have dug yourself a pit, stop digging." He keeps right on digging: Perhaps he will come out on the other side of the world. Actually, that is an excellent idea. There, one can also arrange lectures while double-billing for a luxury trip.

There is an alternative model for how public figures could act when embroiled in legal difficulties, even if this does not retroactively absolve them of the offenses in question. Take Ezer Weizman, who voluntarily opened the President's Residence to investigators and hastened to waive his immunity, which would otherwise have delayed the investigation until he retired (therefore enabling him to destroy vital documents). Or Tzachi Hanegbi, former justice minister and public security minister: He honored and even promoted those who investigated and prosecuted him, and was careful to maintain his restraint and dignity, as he understood that the club was more important than any of its members.

But as far as Olmert is concerned, the clubhouse can burn down. He is the most secular Israeli of all: To him, nothing is sacred. Not the memory of the Holocaust, not Nazi-hunters, not injured children (after all, even according to his own minimalist admission, he stole frequent-flyer points from all these groups, which could have enabled them to save the price of a plane ticket on future flights). And certainly not the good of the state. He is the supreme embodiment of two complementary terms: guilt and shame.

Olmert has been known to the police and prosecution for at least two decades, ever since he served as a prosecution witness (and was thereby spared the role of defendant) in the North American Bank trial. As prime minister, he was greeted by a timid, considerate and permissive starting line-up in the law enforcement agencies. Attorney General Menachem Mazuz was justly unwilling to assume the role of kingmaker (and breaker). That is not the role the Israeli system intended him to play, and it would be an invitation to disaster: For a government, bequeathing a hot-blooded or intriguing attorney general to its successor is much like bequeathing a landmine. Mazuz needs complete confidence in the solidity of a case before he will sign an indictment against a prime minister.

Alongside Mazuz was former state prosecutor Eran Shendar, who had formed a very negative opinion of Olmert, but retreated from the battlefield. And the two key figures in the police - then commissioner Moshe Karadi and the head of the investigations and intelligence department, Yochanan Danino - were considered people who "understood the rules," who were friendly to politicians. Karadi, who declared that he would not grant Brigadier General Danino the rank of major general until he moved from investigations into the field (as a regional commander or deputy district commander), changed his mind when the minister who appointed him, Hanegbi, asked him to propose five candidates to head the minister's operations staff, but insisted that Danino be one of them.

What has happened to this starting line-up? Two new players have been brought in from the bench - Moshe Lador as state prosecutor and David Cohen as police commissioner - while Olmert's fouls stiffened Mazuz and Danino's spines. Cohen, after a rocky start, put himself at the head of the investigative chain of command, though the professional discussions are conducted by Danino and his officers, along with Mazuz, Lador and the prosecutors responsible for the Olmert cases. The police, under Cohen's watchful eye, have been uncovering and amassing information, not moving in for the kill. That is the job of the state prosecutor, the attorney general and the judges.

The police and prosecution wasted precious time in dealing with inquiries conducted by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, whom Olmert tried to drown in ridicule. Danino, whom Olmert is now attacking, gave him a gift before his trip to the Annapolis Conference: a recommendation - which some in the prosecution vehemently object to accepting - that the Bank Leumi case be closed. The investigators did not uncover evidence against Olmert; they were blinkered, and had trouble seeing the evidence until they collided with it, which forced them to admit its existence.

The Morris Talansky case, which since has snowballed, was the escape clause that Olmert missed. If, at the very beginning, attorney Eli Zohar had sought a low-fat plea bargain for his client - closing all the cases, both active and emerging, in exchange for Olmert's resignation, a fine and community service, with the judge to decide whether moral turpitude was involved - there was a chance that Mazuz, having been burned in the Moshe Katsav case, might have agreed, despite the fear that the High Court of Justice would accept the inevitable petitions against such a lenient deal.

In October 1973, then-American vice president Spiro Agnew obtained precisely such a deal after he was caught systematically accepting cash-filled envelopes: He resigned, paid a fine and was given a criminal record, but escaped prison.

Carmi Gillon, who headed the Shin Bet security service at the time of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, quickly resigned - a move he said was in defiance of the advice he received from attorney Zohar - so the Shamgar Committee, which investigated the assassination, would not oust him. Attorney Olmert is surrounded by 10 contentious lawyers, who give him advice pro and con. But above all, he is surrounded by Olmert, who does not know how to get out in time - whether in criminal cases or in the Second Lebanon War. Now, it is already too late. And the price is being paid by all Israelis.