Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Olmert Scandal: Gag Order Lifted (Mostly)

Well, the bombastic 60th Independence Day festivities are over (with 2 onlookers seriously wounded when a public demonstration of Israeli military prowess resulted in an awful accident), and finally the Israeli courts have lifted most of the ridiculous gag order (which the gutless Israeli newspapers slavishly followed) concerning Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Before I get to the details, let me just say: shame on all the publishers and editors of Israel's supposedly "independent" media. This story has nothing to do with national security in the conventional sense (though more on that later). Why not a single paper (other than Yediot Aharonot -- and then only for one edition) chose to openly challenge the idiotic ruling of the courts, Pentagon Papers-style, is very disturbing. The big media venues completely dropped the ball here, and it does not bode well for the future of Israeli democracy.

Speaking of the dim future of Israeli democracy, the story that has finally been published on all the news media web sites confirms the identity of Morris Talansky (a contributor to, amongst others, George Bush, Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, and Paul Welstone???) as at least one American businessman who handed over hundreds of thousands of dollar in envelopes to Olmert's lawyer and office administrator over the course of a number of years while Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem and minister of industry and trade in the Sharon government. One accusation has Minister Olmert in exchange writing a letter to hotel owners encouraging them to use Talansky's mini-bar restocking service.

Late tonight Olmert went out on national TV with a partial defense, denying the now circulating accusations ("I never took a penny into my pocket"), but simultaneously offering to resign as PM if charges are actually filed. Press reports suggest the investigation will take weeks if not months, so it seems that any immediate fear that President George W. Bush might not be able to greet his friend Udi next week in Jerusalem is off the table (though Bush is cancelling a 3-way that had been planned with Olmert & Mahmoud Abbas). But with Abbas suffering heart problems, Olmert suffering political problems, and Bush suffering from lame-duckness, forget the chances of seeing the Annapolis "non-process" bear any fruit.

But that isn't the whole story. Here is what some are whispering, and a tale which I have on fairly decent authority from a senior local journalist. I don't have any way to fact check -- this may simply be the theory of a journalist; or it may be the truth. It certainly sounds plausible. Let's call it the "vast right-wing conspiracy" theory.

Understand first, that since the 1990s, Israeli politics has become more "Americanized" -- more media-driven, more consultant-based, and much more expensive (blame longtime US-resident Benjy Netanyahu for this transformation). And American and European Jewish "philanthropists" have been priming the pump of this new kind of Israeli politics in ways and at levels that are unprecedented. One way this has been done is by setting up foundations (like the New Jerusalem Fund) and think tanks (like the Shalem Institute), and funneling millions to support ideologies and specific political figures acceptable to donors. Good lawyers make these foreign foundation donations totally legal. American millionaires (on both sides of the political spectrum) are turning Israeli politics into their egotistical playground, and bringing unprecedented corruption to the political landscape. That is what I meant above by stating that this is in a certain way a story about "national security": it is apparent now that Israeli politicians at the highest level can be bought, and certainly compromised, by foreign millions. In this case, this latest bribery investigation is supposedly the result of a decision made by wealthy American Jewish businessmen working with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (himself tarnished by bribery allegations) to bring down the Olmert government sooner rather than later, by revealing these obviously damaging facts about Olmert at this time.

Here's the context: Olmert is exchanging messages with Syria through Turkey, and both sides suggest that they are within striking distance of a deal. More importantly, under the watchful supervision of Condoleeza Rice, Olmert and Abbas were actually making some progress on the Annapolis track. These American Jewish philanthropers, longtime supporters of Netanyahu (but also once friendly with then-Likud rising star Olmert) decided to take Olmert down. And so one of them began to sing, essentially becoming a state witness for the case against Olmert. Now, it has been suggested, Talansky's lawyer back in Long Island has warned Talansky that if what he is currently telling Israeli investigators is true, Talansky will have a hard time explaining hundreds of thousands of unreported dollars to the IRS. So Talansky, I am told, has clammed up. He's also been quoted as saying he fears Olmert may try to do him harm (but this from a guy who apparently used thugs himself back in the US to collect pledges).

I seriously doubt this story will be fully unpacked before I leave Israel (sigh) next week. But if I got any of the story right, you read it in this blog first. If not, then I was a victim of bad Israeli journalism. (And I repeat, there must be a reason that Steven Colbert retains "Israeli Newspapers" on his On Notice list.)

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