Taxing Times for Olmert

The Tax Authority Affair has joined the wealth of other affairs, investigations and files that have been pursuing Olmert ever since he was elected to his position as prime minister.

He hasn't a drop of luck, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Exactly one year ago yesterday, on the night of January 4, close to midnight, he took his seat in Ariel Sharon's chair. A reason for rejoicing. But in Olmert's bureau no one was celebrating this week, not even modestly, not even in his heart. The new affair that has landed on them caused the gray and worried faces there to go even grayer.

Although, according to the reporters on the police beat, there isn't any evidence that connects Olmert to corruption in the Tax Authority, the thought that police investigators had been listening for months to his office manager Shula Zaken's mobile phone - one of the busiest and most discreet mobile phones in the country - has been keeping Olmert and his people awake nights. In the police safe there are now thousands of recordings that document the way Olmert's bureau works, to the deepest and most intimate level. In the future, will someone from the police pull some embarrassing transcript and give it to the press? Olmert's people are asking themselves this question, and no doubt he is too.

His bureau is going up in smoke, bit by bit. Shula Zaken is out, at least for the meantime. The veteran media advisor, Assi Sariv, is leaving in a week's time. Ironically, he will be replaced by the person who was the spokesman of the Justice Ministry, Yanki Galanti. Government Secretary Yisrael Maimon is expected to leave within the next few months. Relations with the military secretary, Gadi Shamni, are not what they used to be, ever since it was discovered that Shamni played a key role in persuading his subordinate H. to file a police complaint against former justice minister Kadima MK Haim Ramon, Olmert's darling friend.

The Tax Authority Affair has joined the wealth of other affairs, investigations and files that have been pursuing Olmert ever since he was elected to his position: the apartments, the pens, the investment center at the Ministry of Industry and Trade and the suspicion of political appointments. At the moment attention is focused on the current affair, but in the near future things that concern Olmert himself will rise to the surface.

If the attorney general decides to order a criminal investigation against Olmert, in one affair or more, the prime minister will become a suspect, under questioning. That is how he will have to conduct himself. He will not be the first prime minister to have been investigated, but he is the first prime minister whose time in office, which has officially not yet completed a year, has come to symbolize public corruption, flawed values, moral rot and a general sense of disgust.

The expression "a state under investigation" covers a long list of issues, most of which have no connection to Olmert: from the affair of President Moshe Katsav, Haim Ramon's trial and the sale of soccer games to the trial of Shas MK Shlomo Benizri and the investigation of Kadima MK Tzachi Hanegbi. Olmert isn't involved, but he is the prime minister and a prime minister also needs a little bit of luck. Olmert doesn't have it.

Tzipi is suspect

The level of suspicion in the Prime Minister's Bureau regarding Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has risen considerably in recent weeks - even before her interview in Haaretz [last Friday] and the publication of her "diplomatic plan." Olmert's people are saying, in closed conversations, that behind the prime minister's back Livni is plotting unkosher diplomatic initiatives with her colleague United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Olmert's people are basing themselves on "open intelligence": a number of reports that were published in the American media right after Livni and Rice met about a month ago attributed to the administration the intention to skip over the first phase of the road map that conditions diplomatic progress on the cessation of terror. In Olmert's bureau they saw these reports as the work of Livni and Rice, contrary to the positions of the two bosses, Olmert and United States President George W. Bush.

The romance that had blossomed between Livni and Olmert after she acceded to his request and accepted the Justice portfolio has ended; it has been replaced by a breakup and a big chill blowing from both sides of the hill at the Government Compound. This was a short romance with no satisfaction.

And then came the interview with Ari Shavit in which Livni in her polite way threatened to run against Olmert if he does not bring her into the diplomatic process. She does not see a meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) or a random gesture as "process." She has a collection of ideas, but the prime minister is not enthusiastic about them; he is like the prime minister before him, interested in being the sole manager of matters of state.

The prime minister's complaints to his people about Livni have been neither published nor leaked. Only

a few have been party to them. Until this Monday, when another person joined the group of those in on the secret: MK Yisrael Katz, of the Likud. In his speech to the Knesset plenum in which he gave the reasons for the Likud's motion of no confidence in the government, Katz accused the foreign minister of subverting the government and the prime minister and set forth in detail the Olmert bureau's entire fabric of accusations against the person who two days earlier had declared herself "worthy" of the position of prime minister.

Katz called upon Olmert to fire Livni immediately and suggested to her that she run for the position of head of the [leftwing] Meretz party. In an interview with Army Radio Katz praised Olmert for his staunchness in the matter of the road map.

In a conversation on the following day, Katz added details: "All of the reports that were published in the United States about a change in Israel's position - is her work vis-a-vis Condi," he says, thus citing word for word things that were being said quite recently by the people closest to Olmert; the very closest to Olmert. Then he claimed that he had derived his high-quality information from "open sources" - this too is an expression that has been current in Olmert's circles, on the matter of Livni.

Was Katz briefed by the Prime Minister's Bureau before he took the podium at the Knesset to argue the no confidence motion? He says not. In Livni's circle they are convinced that he was. After all, at the moment Olmert and the Likud have an identical interest: to push her to the left and depict her as an enemy of Israel. To this end they are prepared even to climb into political bed together.

Barak is preparing

For five days now Ehud Barak has been circulating from cafes to restaurants to his private apartment. His luxurious office, on the 20th floor of the Millennium Tower in Tel Aviv that has thus far been funded by public monies, has been taken from him by the government. Henceforth he will have to pay for his office out of his own pocket - which no doubt promises greater modesty and a tighter fist in selecting offices, by the tenant.

Barak, who left the Prime Minister's Office five years and nine months ago, was slated to bid farewell to his bodyguards as well on January 1. The government decision determined that a former prime minister will be given an office and bodyguards at the state's expense for a five-year period following the end of his tenure. In March of last year this period was extended by an additional nine months, definitely the very last extension, until January 1 of this year.

On Monday, December 31, a secret telephone poll was taken among the members of the ministerial committee for Shin Bet security service matters, on the instruction of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The ministers were asked to approve a further extension of half a year for the funding of Barak's bodyguards at the state's expense. The ministers were told that the matter had not yet been conclusively arranged and that a problem had come up with this applying only to Barak. Former prime ministers Netanyahu and Peres have state-funded bodyguards in their current official capacities (leader of the opposition and minister), and as for Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir - the former is in a coma in a hospital and the latter is in a nursing home and they do not need bodyguards from the Shin Bet.

There is no doubt that this was a handsome gesture on Olmert's part to his friend Barak. It would be interesting to know whether Olmert would have made a similar gesture to Netanyahu if he were outside political life today. Without an office, but still with a detail of bodyguards, Barak has had to hold his important meetings that are intended to prepare the ground for his renewed race for the chairmanship of the Labor Party in public places or at home. Alongside meetings with Knesset members and party activists, he is making a point of being in constant touch with one-time rivals: bitter rivals whom he had collected assiduously during his period as prime minister and afterwards. He is talking with Vice Premier Shimon Peres and with Moshe Shahal . With Avraham Burg, formerly an ally of Defense Minister and current party chairman Amir Peretz and even - this is really a surprise - with his biggest and most sworn rival - Haim Ramon.

They converse regularly, mainly by phone, mainly conversations that Barak initiates, also in order to encourage and strengthen Ramon during the course of his trial. Ramon is no longer a member of the Labor Party - he is in Kadima and Barak does not need to invest in him, but people who speak to him have formed the impression that Barak, on the eve of his renewed foray into politics, has decided to iron out all the difficulties between everyone and everyone: so that during the course of the difficult race that awaits him he will be badmouthed as little as possible by the people with open accounts; so that if two months from now some interviewer asks Ramon for his opinion of Barak, Ramon won't lash out at him.

Netanyahu too

In the public opinion polls that Netanyahu consumes regularly, he is checking his position as chairman of the Likud versus Kadima headed by Ehud Olmert, versus Kadima headed by Tzipi Livni and versus the Labor Party headed by Ehud Barak. Bibi (Netanyahu) assesses that in the next elections, these will be the contenders. He is not prepared to gamble that Barak will win in the Labor Party, but in his estimation, of all the contenders in Labor only Ehud Barak can transform this sinking party that lacks an identity into a significant political force.

The voter registration drive in the Labor Party will finish at the end of the month and Barak does not intend to go to extreme lengths to enlist new members for the party. He is interested in enlisting the strong people in the party: National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer and Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon with their thousands of registered party members, the popular Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog and MK Ophir Pines (who declared his candidacy this week) and the heads of the groups inside the party.

Ben-Eliezer is already working for him. This week he told a group of activists at his bureau: "This race is for the next defense minister. We must ensure the country's security in advance of the next war. Therefore, it is necessary to go with Ehud Barak with all our might. As for the candidate for prime minister," said Fuad, "in any case we have another round of primaries before the Knesset elections. We'll decide then."