In Argentina It Wouldn't Faze Anyone

Whether or not Olmert's behavior was formally criminal, his decision to accept money secretly is enough to morally disqualify him from being one of the country's leaders.

Even when the prime minister comes out looking like a plumber, who prefers to get paid in cash rather than by check, the public should avoid rash conclusions. Payment via envelopes full of cash might be a local custom; there might be justifiable reasons; and it is also possible that Morris Talansky's testimony yesterday was inaccurate or too eager to paint the prime suspect in shades of black. Still, it is justified to use this testimony to enlighten us about Ehud Olmert's contribution to the hygiene of public life in Israel.

Both according to Talansky's deposition and to Olmert's admission on the evening after Independence Day, he and Talansky maintained at best a one-way relationship: Talansky gave and Olmert took. Olmert does not deny this, and when his lawyers cross-examine Talansky, on whatever date they eventually choose, they are not expected to try to undermine this conclusion.

For 15 years, the elderly Jewish man from New York passed envelopes filled with cash to the individual who was mayor of Jerusalem, then health minister, then industry, trade and employment minister, and now prime minister. There is a disagreement between the witness and the individual under investigation as to what this money was used for - solely to run Olmert's election campaigns, or also to fund his private pleasures. But they agree that quite a bit of money moved from one pocket to another. There is also no dispute over the fact that the path these tens of thousands of dollars took was concealed: Olmert did not volunteer to report it to the public, nor to the state authorities whose business it should have been to know about it, and Talansky held his tongue until he landed in Israel about a month ago and was kept from leaving so that he could be questioned.

In other words, whether the investigation now under way against Olmert turns into an indictment or not, whether Talansky's testimony becomes evidence in legal proceedings against the prime minister or whether it remains merely an anecdote in the annals of the darker corners of Israeli politics, what we are seeing now is enough to shame the country and rouse disgust against its leaders, who are willing to continue suffering his presence in public life.

In Argentina, it would probably not faze anyone to hear descriptions like this. And surely not in Italy either. In Israel, however, the public has never before been exposed to the depths of government corruption revealed by the prime minister's investigation and Talansky's testimony. Regardless of whether or not the prime minister's behavior was formally criminal, and of whether or not the investigation indeed morphs into an indictment, his very decision to accept money secretly is enough to morally disqualify him from being one of the country's leaders.

Israel's citizens, in the main, want their elected officials to have clean hands, opinion polls attest. Olmert's conduct vis-a-vis Talansky reeks of deceit, evasion and false pretenses, which were called upon not to serve the national interest, but to further embellish the good life that he leads in any case leads. Olmert is a particularly crude example of a type of hedonistic public figure who, the higher he climbs in Israel's leadership, the haughtier he becomes, the more boastful and the less able to distinguish between appropriate and unacceptable.

From a young politician of modest means, Olmert grew into a well-off leader who evidently knew how to use his public position in order to promote his personal affairs. Until now, it had seemed that he was wise enough not to cross the red line into the realm of criminality, but his relationship with Talansky has begun to crack this assumption. Even if he is not put on trial in this case, his behavior vis-a-vis the fundraiser from the United States proves an age-old truth: When greed awakens, wisdom goes to sleep.

One blessing might come out of Olmert: Just as the revelation of how former president Moshe Katsav behaved toward his female subordinates led to a decline in sexual harassment in the public service, so too, a peek at Olmert's behavior with regard to Talansky may well generate a real turning point in the pattern of relationships between the country's leaders and wealthy Jews from abroad. So far, this seems to be Olmert's only salient contribution during his term as prime minister.