Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Israel's latest political crisis/ Iran misses another "litmus test"

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Update from AIJAC

May 29, 2008
Number 05/08 #11


In Israel, the often-embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears to be facing his worst political crisis to date. First, the public testimony (reports here and here) by American businessman Morris Talansky, who is alleged to have given Olmert more than US$150,000 largely in cash, as well as others gifts, has shocked many Israelis. Now, Ehud Barak, the head of the Labor party, a coalition partner essential for maintaining the Government's parliamentary majority, has called for Olmert to resign or step aside until the investigation is completed and is threatening to support new elections if he does not.

First up is a good summary of the reactions to the latest crisis from Olmert, Barak and other political leaders in the Israeli daily Haaretz.  The paper points out that Olmert has survived a number of similar crises, but that calls for a resignation are widespread. For the basics needed to understand what is happening, CLICK HERE. Israeli media outlets are reporting that most parliamentary factions feel a new election is more likely than not - see here and here. More analysis of the political fallout and manoeuvring, as well as Olmert's defiant stance, comes from Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz.

Next up is one example from the many angry responses in the Israeli media to the revelations by Talansky. Columnist Uzi Benziman argues that, regardless of whether or not laws were broken, the spectacle of a Prime Minister accepting money and support for a very expensive lifestyle from a foreign businessman might be expected behaviour in Argentina or Italy, but it is not what Israelis expect from their Prime Minister and has left him morally disqualified in the eyes of most Israelis. Benziman also expresses hope that this episode will be a wake-up call that will prevent further such spectacles in Israeli politics. For the full piece, CLICK HERE. Making similar arguments in the wake of the Talansky testimony are other Israeli columnists Sidma Kadmon and Ari Shavit, as well as editorials in the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz.


Finally, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) bluntly reported on Monday that Iran was still wilfully refusing to be helpful in answering questions about its nuclear program (see news story here.The Washington Post points out in an editorial that such cooperation was set by the IAEA itself as the latest litmus test, and this is hardly the first such test Iran has failed. It also says that given this, it is now time for the US and its allies to look at ways to maximise leverage against Iran, rather than debating the sort of negotiations which should take place. For the paper's full argument, CLICK HERE. Also commenting on the latest IAEA report were the Israeli foreign ministry, the Wall Street Journal, and scholar Emanuele Ottolenghi.

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Olmert: Not every person under probe must resign

By Ofra Edelman and Tomer Zarchin, Haaretz Correspondents, and Agencies

Haaretz,  28/05/2008

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert responded to growing calls for his resignation Wednesday, telling council heads of Gaza area communities and Ashkelon, "someone under investigation doesn't necessarily have to resign."

"You can be sure that I have explanations for all the allegations against me, and every testimony will be refuted," Olmert said.

Olmert is suspected of having illegally received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Jewish American businessman Morris Talansky. On Tuesday, Talansky told a preliminary hearing at Jerusalem Magistrates Court that he gave Olmert $150,000 over a period of 15 years.

Olmert raised as evidence for his claims the testimony of his former driver, Avi Sherman, who was proven to have lied on television about details pertaining to the investigation. "They asked him ten questions on TV, but the polygraph proved he was lying in every answer," Olmert said. "I need to resign because someone said something against me? Every minute an investigation is launched and someone has to resign? If so, four prime ministers should have resigned in recent years."

Olmert also addressed the ongoing rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into the Gaza area communities, reiterating the sentiment that very soon a decision will be made regarding Israel's response to the situation.

Earlier Wednesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to leave his post or prepare for early elections, saying he did not believe the premier was capable of simultaneously leading the country and dealing with his personal matters.

"I do not think the prime minister can simultaneously run the government and deal with his own personal affair," Barak told a news conference at the Knesset press room in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

"Therefore, out of a sense of what is good for the country and in accordance with the proper norms, I think the prime minister must disconnect himself from the daily running of the government.

"He can do this in any of the ways available to him - suspension, vacation, resignation or declaring himself incapacitated. We will not be the ones to determine this," he added.

Barak held consultations with senior Labor Party officials before making the official press statement. He also met with Olmert himself at the end of a cabinet meeting Wednesday.

As Olmert's senior coalition partner, Labor's departure would leave the premier without a majority with which to rule.

Olmert has ridden out similar storms since taking office in early 2006 and Barak was less than clear on what steps he might take, and when.

Barak also stopped short of action that would immediately bring down the government and trigger an election that could backfire on him. Polls suggest the right-wing Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu would handily defeat Labor.

Livni: Israel has values and morals that bind its leaders

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Wednesday that Israel's leaders are bound by the state's values and morals, referring to the corruption investigation.

Speaking in Jerusalem at a memorial service for David Raziel, the commander of the militant Zionist group that operated in Palestine between 1931 and 1948 Etzel, Livni said that "the state has a vision and values that obligate both its citizens and its leaders. Before we can a light onto others, it is only fitting that we work toward showing the light inside our home."

"There are morals that should be common to all of us and that represent unwritten norms and behavioral guidelines for everyone, whether poor or rich," she added.

Labor MKs move to dissolve the government

Also in response to the calls for Olmert to step down, immediately after Barak's press conference, three Labor MKs - Shelly Yachimovich, Eitan Cabel and Ophir Pines-Paz - submitted a motion to dissolve the government. They said that their proposal was made with Barak's approval.

"Under the current situation, Olmert cannot continue in his post," said Pines-Paz. "If Kadima does not replace at one and create an alternative government, we will push forth a proposal to set an expedient and exact date for elections."

Cabel, the Labor faction whip, said that if Kadima does not put its house in order during the Knesset summer session, Labor would call for snap elections. "This is enough time for Kadima's internal dealings to be exhausted," he said.

Shas leader and Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai said that the early elections are closer than ever. "It is highly unlikely a new government could be formed with the current make-up of the Knesset," he said.

He also said that Shas is the only party that is not concerned about early elections.

Nationalist camp demands PM resign

Likud MK Yisrael Katz called on Olmert to resign without delay and hold early elections, citing Barak's statements that Olmert is incapable of attending to Israel's diplomatic and security concerns.

National Religious Party-National Union MK Arieh Eldad said that Barak realized he could not carry on sailing aboard Olmert's sinking pirate ship.

"The earlier Israel rids itself of the shadow of shame cast on it by the envelope man and call early elections, the better," he said.

"The greenbacks in Talansky's envelopes were black [with filth]," said Eldad, who also serves as chairman of the Knesset caucus against corruption. "Black money bought the prime minister of Israel, and until Olmert is removed from his post, the black flag of corruption flies over the entire state of Israel."

Likud MK Limor Livnat said that Barak betrayed his national role, and failed to show public integrity.

"By not setting a deadline for the prime minister's departure, Labor proved weak," she said. "If there were any doubts, along came Talansky's testimony and proved that Ehud Olmert must go home immediately and we must have elections."

Earlier Wednesday, amid news reports that Barak would deliver the ultimatum to the prime minister, Labor legislator Danny Yatom said: "Either Olmert suspends himself or the Labor Party must leave the government."

Barak had been expected during the press conference to deny radio reports according to which he was considering forming an emergency government with the right-wing opposition Likud party that would leave out Olmert's centrist Kadima party.

Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a Labor Party veteran and Barak stalwart, said the defense minister had consulted "with nearly the entire Labor Party" regarding the faction's future in light of the Olmert probe. The minister said that party officials are not averse to early elections, adding that it would be difficult for Olmert to contend with state issues while embroiled in this affair.

"I would expect the prime minister would have his head 100 percent dedicated to the security problems of the state of Israel and wouldn't deal with anything else," Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio.

Kadima MKs Amira Dotan and Ze'ev Elkin also demanded Wednesday that Olmert resign.

Coalition concerns

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum began calls for Olmert's resignation and fresh elections nearly three weeks ago.

Labor Party officials said then that the faction would remain in Olmert's coalition government until a court ruling is made in the case.

Olmert has said he would resign if indicted but State Prosecutor Moshe Lador said it was too early to say if an indictment would be issued and that a decision would be made only after completion of police investigations.

Tal Silberstein, an Olmert adviser, told Army Radio on Wednesday that the prime minister had no intention of stepping aside now.

"I can tell you, based on a recent conversation with him, that he has no intention of announcing that he is taking a leave of absence or declaring anything at this stage - not as long as he is trying to prove his innocence," Silberstein said.

Knesset members lashed out at Olmert on Tuesday in response to Morris Talansky's testimony in the Jerusalem District Court.

Knesset Interior Committee Chairman Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor) said: "I do not understand how testimony like this jives with Olmert's statement that he did not take one shekel for his own pocket." Pines said Olmert's continued tenure was "insufferable and impossible."

Knesset State Control Committee Chairman Zevulun Orlev (National Union-National Religious Party) said: "A prime minister who asked for and received money in envelopes has lost his moral and public authority. Talansky's testimony is a serious public indictment against Ehud Olmert, and the coalition parties will be like partners in crime if they do not end his term immediately."

MK Ran Cohen (Meretz) said: "Despite our support for the diplomatic process Olmert is leading, if what Talansky says is true, Olmert cannot sit one more day in the prime minister's chair.

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In Argentina it wouldn't faze anyone

By Uzi Benziman

Haaretz, 28/05/2008 

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.

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Iran's Failed 'Litmus Test'

Will there be consequences for Tehran's stonewalling of U.N. nuclear inspectors?

Washington Post, Wednesday, May 28, 2008

LAST AUGUST, the International Atomic Energy Agency struck a deal with Iran on a "work plan" for clearing up outstanding questions about its nuclear program within three months -- in other words, before December 2007. IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, who launched the initiative as an end run around the Western campaign to stop Tehran's ongoing uranium enrichment, claimed that it would be a "litmus test." "If Iran were to prove that it was using this period for delaying tactics and it was not really acting in good faith, then obviously nobody -- nobody -- will come to its support when people call for more sanctions or for punitive measures," Mr. ElBaradei said in an interview last September with Newsweek.

On Monday, some six months after the expiration of the deadline, the IAEA issued a report saying, in essence, that Iran had not acted in good faith and was engaging in delaying tactics. "Substantial explanations" were still lacking, the agency said, for documents showing that Iran had worked on bomb-related explosives and a missile warhead design. Moreover, while the IAEA has been cooling its heels, the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been installing two new and more advanced sets of centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, without providing required notification. International inspectors were denied access to sites where the centrifuge components were manufactured. "Iran has not provided the Agency with all the information, access to documents and access to individuals necessary," the IAEA report says.

So will Mr. ElBaradei now support tough new punitive measures by the U.N. Security Council? We expect not. Like several of the Security Council's members, the Egyptian-born director is far less concerned with preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb than in thwarting those he describes as the "crazies" in Washington. As long as that mentality prevails, it's unlikely that Iran will face sanctions stiff enough to cause it to reconsider its defiance of the multiple U.N. resolutions ordering it to suspend uranium enrichment.

That, in turn, is bad news not only for President Bush but for Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). The two presidential candidates have been arguing over whether and how the United States should negotiate with Iran; Mr. Obama suggests that talks would be a key element of his strategy. But as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently pointed out, negotiations won't work unless the United States and its allies develop "leverage, either through economic or diplomatic or military pressures, on the Iranian government so that they believe they must have talks with the United States because there is something they want from us."

At the moment, such leverage is manifestly lacking. How could it be brought about, despite the obstructionism of actors such as Mr. ElBaradei? That, more than the facile subject of whether to negotiate, would be a worthy point for the presidential candidates to address.

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