At Large

Sub-Prime Minister

Reflections on the fall of Ehud Olmert.

By 9.8.08

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Sarah Palin's meteoric rise to stardom, becoming an international sensation in the span of one week, was accompanied by a steady diet of bitter pills. Her dirty laundry was not only aired, it was scourged with reagents, solvents, fingerprint powder and DNA swabs. She could hardly get too carried away with herself while her failures, oversights and missteps were being magnified. The public eye is gazing kindly upon her, but not before peering through her peephole.

The Jewish tradition has a counterintuitive take on this phenomenon. "The heavens do not allow a person to lead the community unless he has a can of worms slung over his shoulder, so if he slips into arrogance, they tell him to take a step back." (Talmud Yoma)

Not only is baggage allowed on the airplane to the top, it is required. God will not take a chance with too spotless a character, because there is no leverage with which to rein him in if he becomes too full of himself. The fear of youthful misadventures leaking to the press is seen as a divine instrumentality to assure humility.

One fellow who has gotten his recall notice under this system is Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. On Sunday, the Federal Police of Israel recommended that the Prosecutor-General indict Olmert on multiple charges of bribery and corruption. He has already tendered his resignation effective September 18, on which day the ruling Kadima Party will hold a primary, the winner becoming the standard-bearer, inheriting Olmert's position without necessitating a national election.

Twenty years ago, Ehud Olmert was a run-of-the-mill member of Parliament for the Likud Party, not seen as a major comer. He devised a clever strategy to leapfrog his way into the top ranks. He ran for Mayor of Jerusalem against the venerable Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. He lost on his first try, but in 1993, he took another shot. He painted the 82-year-old incumbent as over the hill, around the bend and out of steam. Kollek had a few senior moments in that campaign, losing his place in the middle of speeches, and the voters offered him retirement.

From that perch, Olmert was poised to crack the higher echelons. Jerusalem is the greatest municipal success story of the last century, if not longer. A Biblical metropolis had fallen into ruin and spent two millennia as an archeological repository. The prophecy of Zachariah seemed absurd: "There will again sit old men and women in the streets of Jerusalem, a man holding his cane in his hand from his many years, boys and girls playing in its streets." When Nachmanides (1194-1270) arrived in Jerusalem in 1267, he diarized that he found three full-time residents, two of them brothers who ran a shop selling memorabilia to tourists. Now it is a cosmopolitan capital with a spiritual aura, boasting about three quarters of a million residents.

One thing that is repeated many, many times in the Midrash, written about nineteen hundred years ago, is that at the end of history Jerusalem will expand much further than its size during Biblical times. The man who presided over that, Kollek, was not only a secularist, but a creepy guy who had informed to the British against Menachem Begin's Irgun, his code name Scorpion. Partly out of fear of that history coming out, his buddies in Labor handed him the mayoralty as a sop to keep him out of national politics. Instead, he turned his job into something much more than intended, thereby putting history, and all of us, in his debt.

What he did to expand Jerusalem well beyond the range allowed by government budgeting was to create the Jerusalem One Foundation, traveling abroad to give philanthropists a chance to build the Holy City with their cash. The opportunity for corruption here is staggering, with a mayor generating a whole new pot of money free of the scrutiny applied to government allocations. If Kollek pocketed some, I have no idea, but when Olmert came along, he found a very juicy plum ripe for the picking. As I recall, he spent more time at parlor meetings with American financiers than with the City Council.

The primary testimony bringing him down came from Long Island businessman Morris Talansky, but I would bet that he was just one of many such players. (Full disclosure: I am friendly with two of Talansky's nieces.) He described how Olmert would call him from the registration desk at a ritzy Washington, D.C. hotel, asking him for a credit card number so he could check in for an important conference. These outstanding "loans" remained outstanding.

Modern Israel, modern Jerusalem, are great miracles of our time. The people who do the spadework feel, rightly, that they are serving all Jews in that endeavor. Jews outside Israel, in turn, want to feel they can play a role in moving history forward. A man like Talansky asks no favors in return, he asks only for favor. And yet this meeting of a sincere Jew, dedicated to his people, and an effective public officer, building a great Messianic land out of a barren desert, leads not into the beauty that might have been, but into a sordid can of worms. A cautionary tale, my friends, a cautionary tale indeed.

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About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.