Mr. Suspect's Government

The Olmert government appears to be the most miserable of Israel's 31 governments, in its makeup and performance.

Zach Chen, a captain (res.) in the Military Advocate General's Office, is very busy this week. The Israel Defense Forces asked for his legal-operational advice in an exercise for one of its divisions, a unit whose best-known commander was Ariel Sharon. Military lawyers give guidance to commanders so that they avoid doing anything that violates the rules of war. Only after he finishes his army duties will he be free to return to his client, Morris Talansky, the cash machine of Sharon's successor.

While Chen is in uniform, Talansky is at home, waiting for the proceedings to play out in the affair that bears his name. And he is left at the mercy of the gods without any bodyguards. Talansky wondered how a comment he made in English to a police investigator - that he might be harmed by someone on behalf of Ehud Olmert - became another argument by the state prosecution for seeking his deposition.

After all, Talansky is not afraid - at best he is a little concerned; only in the movies can a prime minister with the power to dispatch the Shin Bet, Mossad and commando units after enemies of the state order assassins to "intercept" witnesses. It is also not in Olmert's interest that something bad happens to people who have already given their version of the story to the police: In their absence, the court may allow the prosecution to use their testimonies.

But the minute the words were spoken by State Prosecutor Moshe Lador and Jerusalem District Prosecutor Eli Abarbanel, with all the required caveats, the words managed to convince three district court judges and have taken on a life of their own. Now, if, God forbid, Talansky meets his maker, if, God forbid, a reckless driver hits Uri Messer, and if, God forbid, a terrible cough paralyzes Shula Zaken, the whole country will be flooded by conspiracy theories.

Olmert, the Mr. Suspect of Israeli politics, embarrasses the State of Israel by his insistence to remain prime minister. The day he is forced to give up the most senior executive post will be a good day, the first day of catharsis. The bad day was the day he assumed office.

While the police are asking him to explain his links to the American contributors who funded him through Talansky, and the money trail, once he received the funds, most of the burden was on the shoulders of his partners, the cabinet ministers. While Olmert refuses to give up his seat, the ministers are responsible for the situation for not removing him. His turpitude is their turpitude.

The Olmert government appears to be the most miserable of Israel's 31 governments, in its makeup and performance. Its members have forgotten their collective responsibility and that the prime minister is only the first among equals. Their willingness to continue to serve under him stigmatizes them.

It is hard to believe that Dan Meridor and Shlomo Ben-Ami, Benny Begin and Yossi Sarid would have stayed an extra minute in a government where Olmert was a suspect. The members of this government are made of different stuff, of trickery, and will dissolve in elections when another party under the slogan "we are tired of suspects" convinces voters that it offers an answer to the public's yearning for a clean Israel.

Having Mr. Suspect at the helm is also a security threat. Ami Ayalon and Avi Dichter, as heads of the Shin Bet security service, would not have kept a department head, section chief or bodyguard who had the kind of suspicions voiced against him as Olmert. But they are staying in his cabinet and relinquishing any future claim for moral national leadership. Ehud Barak as commander of the Chief of Staff Reconnaissance Unit, head of Military Intelligence or head of the IDF would not have tolerated a suspect like Olmert.

If an ambassador had such suspicions levelled against him, Tzipi Livni would have taken action at the Foreign Ministry to remove him. When Olmert applies different rules on himself, they show restraint, instead of unifying to topple him and form a new government to deal with the problems that range from the Gaza Strip to Iran.

And if Benjamin Netanyahu has any pretenses of caring for the country and not himself, he will prove it by lifting the threat to move the elections forward - and by offering the missing votes for the 61 MKs needed to bolster an alternative candidate for the premiership. The cost to the government may be the Foreign Ministry portfolio for Netanyahu.

A Livni-Barak-Netanyahu government will be similar to that of Shimon Peres in 1984, with the former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir at the defense and foreign ministries respectively. Politically, in the balance of foreign and domestic exigencies, it does not really matter who the prime minister is; morally, every moment Olmert is at the helm, Israel takes a step closer to the abyss.