Too Close to Call

Yaron Zelekha prepares for the next round.

Consul general Uri Gutman is Israel's man in Shanghai, overseeing relations with the quarter of a billion Chinese who live in the city and its environs. In June a delegation from Jerusalem, headed by Accountant General Yaron Zelekha visited Shanghai, preferring Gutman's economic expertise over that of the embassy in Beijing. The guests were invited to Gutman's residence, where Zelekha, an art aficionado, admired the works that adorned the walls. "And what about that one?" Gutman asked, pointing to a painting that was very different in style on the opposite wall of the large room.

Zelekha glanced at it and didn't like what he saw. Asked who the artist was, Gutman told him: Aliza Omert. The consul, it turned out, is friends with the artist and her husband. Ehud Olmert's shadow chased Zelekha halfway around the world.

Just a few years ago, Yaron Zelekha had correct and better relations - a rarity in the Finance Ministry - with the man who at that time was minister of industry and trade minister, Ehud Olmert. When the officials around a government table squeezed their chairs and Zelekha got up to make way for Olmert, as Benjamin Netanyahu, the finance minister, looked on, Olmert patted the accountant general on the shoulder and whispered to him that he was restraining himself and not giving him a hug so as not to stir Netanyahu's suspicions. The smiles vanished when Olmert succeeded Netanyahu in the treasury and Zelekha filed a complaint with the state comptroller concerning alleged irregularities in the sale of the controlling interest in Bank Leumi.

The forces are not equal. This is a 15-round slugfest between a heavyweight and a middleweight. This week Olmert gave Zelekha a drubbing but did not vanquish him. Don't look for a knockout here; it will be a victory on points. The branch heads in the treasury this week came to the Knesset to support their minister, Roni Bar-On - and Olmert, who's behind him - against Zelekha. But quietly, away from where anyone could hear, more than one of them told Zelekha, "Hang in there, fight the corruption."

The prime minister is stronger, by virtue of his position, but also has a lot more to lose. Zelekha is not against leaving, but is not ready to be shown the door. If he were asked to state the perfect date for him to leave, he would not need a calendar. He would say only, "a minute after Olmert." Not on October 19, as Bar-On recommended to the cabinet (in whose hands the decision lies, rather than Bar-On's), but rather, a minute after the legal proceedings regarding Olmert are decided one way or the other.

On one of the Days of Awe following Rosh Hashana, sometime between September 16 and 20, senior officers from the police National Fraud Unit - Shlomi Ayalon, Eran Kamin and others - are scheduled to question Olmert under caution concerning the Bank Leumi affair. The investigators are convinced that the evidence against the prime minister is solid. Ayalon's commanding officer, Yohanan Danino, is more tenative. The position of State Prosecutor Eran Shendar, who will make the final decision on whether to bring charges, is closer to the investigative team.

Another 40 hours

One possible scenario opens with Ayalon and his team traveling from the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem to their headquarters in Bat Yam, where they conclude the investigation with a recommendation to indict Olmert. Danino, the head of the Investigations and Intelligence Department, transmits the recommendation to the state prosecutor. Here things become sticky, because at this stage of the game Olmert is playing for time and deterrence. Shendar is about to resign and is waiting for the decision of a search committee regarding the name of the man or woman who will succeed him. A little more foot-dragging, a delay or two, holidays, a political summit conference, and the case becomes part of the inheritance Shendar leaves in the hands of the new prosecutor, who will then have to study the material. The list of candidates does not include a jurist who weighed and considered the matter but finally decided against, though he may be in the running next time, if he concludes by then that he has no chance of being appointed police commissioner - namely attorney Yohanan Danino.

In the relay race of the Bank Leumi case, the baton was passed to the National Fraud Unit by the State Comptroller's Office, to which Zelekha submitted his original complaint. When the police took testimony, they asked those who had already made statements to the state comptroller whether they confirmed verbatim what they told him. Their testimony was thus validated for criminal proceedings, but the police investigation continued. In addition to ratifying his original complaint to the state comptroller, Zelekha gave 40 more hours of testimony to the police. Others from the Accountant General's Office also faithfully recapitulated to the police their testimony to the state comptroller. But Zelekha is concerned that if Olmert succeeds in removing him from office while the Bank Leumi case is still hanging in the air, those officials will be less unequivocal when they testify in court.

Amazingly, whenever a police investigation poses a direct or indirect threat to the government, the time arrives for new appointments in the law-enforcement system. In 1986, the attorney general, Yitzhak Zamir, was sent home in connection with the No. 300 bus affair. His successor, Yosef Harish, along with the state prosecutor, Dorit Beinisch (now president of the Supreme Court), endangered the government of Yitzhak Rabin in connection with the investigation of Aryeh Deri, the interior minister. This was close to the end of Harish's tenure, and Rabin tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to hasten Harish's resignation before a decision was made in the case.

In the "Greek Island affair," the attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, retired on the eve of the decision. The acting attorney general, Edna Arbel, signed a draft indictment against Ariel Sharon, but the new AG, Menachem Mazuz, overturned her decision. Those who years ago did not want Beinisch and Arbel in the State Prosecutor's Office got them in the Supreme Court, which will certainly be asked to intervene if the prosecutor decides to close the Bank Leumi case.

Beinisch's court, which is different from that of her predecessor, Aharon Barak, is only one of the differences between the Greek Island affair and the Australian-American group toward which Olmert is suspected of showing preference in the central case relating to Bank Leumi. The case against Sharon - and alongside it a case against Olmert, then the deputy prime minister, in the same affair, which Mazuz also closed, though in that instance, at Arbel's recommendation - sprang from a complaint filed by Eli Yishai, from Shas, against party rivals whom he suspected of wiretapping. The follow-up of the investigation in this case and of the "Cyril Kern" investigation into election financing (a case that's still open) in the wake of material transmitted to Rubinstein by the former state comptroller, Eliezer Goldberg, was not intensive; the case had no patron for whom it burned like a fire in his bones. In the Bank Leumi case, the complainant, Zelekha, will be relentless, and he has material against closing the case that will be submitted to the High Court of Justice - something the petitioners against the closing of the Greek Island case did not have.

Cannon vs. mosquito

Of course, the differences between the major actors in the two cases must not be overlooked. Sharon, then in the eighth decade of his life, trained himself not to turn limited confrontations into world wars. His demonstrative attitude toward the law-enforcement agencies that looked into his affairs was usually businesslike and polite. Olmert, who tends to use cannons against mosquitoes, consistently turns scrutinizers into rivals and rivals into enemies.

Mazuz is not one of Zelekha's greatest advocates. Months ago, the attorney general announced that "staff work" was under way to delimit the terms of office of senior officials such as branch heads in the treasury. That work has not yet been concluded. In his eagerness to validate Zelekha's dismissal, Mazuz exposed himself to an argument that there is a contradiction between presenting the accountant general as an official whose term of office has ended with the expiry of his contract, irrespective of the circumstances of the government's desire to appoint a new accountant general, and the attorney general's position in the case of the decision last spring not to extend the terms of office of Yitzhak Livni and Rachel Ben-Ari on the council of the Second Broadcasting Authority.

Livni and Ben-Ari both objected to the appointment of Rafi Ginat as director general of the news department. Zelekha's lawyers, Boaz Benzur and Keren Shemesh, this week reread with growing approval, Mazuz's arguments to the High Court in that case: Livni and Ben-Ari "were in the midst of a struggle against the [television channel] franchisees" and "demonstrated an independent position." The decision not to extend their terms "aborted the struggle," Mazuz asserted. It was a decision "with broad implications." It contains "fundamental flaws and cannot stand." The members of the Second Broadcasting Authority council "do not have an inherent right to have their term of office extended," but they are "public trustees" and "the aim of preserving their independence" should be taken into account. That case is still unresolved. These and other words will be hurled at Mazuz and Shendar in the High Court of Justice if they try to defend a government decision not to extend the term of office of the accountant general at a time when he is still "acting as the public trustee."