Can Olmert Govern Properly While Under Investigation?



Hezbollah and its allies have just pulled off what may well turn out to be a coup d'état in Lebanon. Large swathes of Beirut have fallen to the forces of Hassan Nasrallah and his Amal allies.

There aren't too many dull news days in the Middle East. Last week on Yom Ha'atzmaut, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad let loose another hateful tirade, calling Israel a "stinking corpse" doomed to disappear. Latest intelligence assessments suggest Tehran could have nuclear weapons (and hard-to-overcome cruise missiles to deliver them) even sooner then originally feared.

In the meantime, President George W. Bush is scheduled to be here this week to help Israel celebrate 60 years of independence, and also to push hard for a "shelf-agreement" between Jerusalem and an enfeebled Palestinian Authority. Then, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is set to arrive to press the Olmert government to accept Hamas' offer for a Gaza cease-fire. Meanwhile, even as he facilitates the dismemberment of Lebanon, Syrian President Bashar Assad may be growing impatient over the Golan Heights.

Clearly, this is not a good time for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to be focused on anything but running the country, addressing a vital range of security, foreign-policy and domestic-agenda issues.

But realistically speaking, how can he be paying complete attention to his job while under multiple investigations by police and prosecutors? With a gag order over many key aspects of the latest inquiry now lifted, we know that the premier is suspected of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash bribes over a period of years from Morris Talansky of New York.

Police will be interviewing Olmert again this week in an investigation that is now expected to take, not days or weeks, but months to complete. Olmert insists he did nothing wrong, and that when all the facts are known he will be vindicated.

Plainly, in the back of everyone's mind is the dismal track record that police and prosecutors have established in the handling of previous investigations involving former president Moshe Katsav, and ex-premiers Ehud Barak, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon.

The decision to authorize the police to pursue a completely new investigation just now embarrasses not just the premier, but the entire nation. Buffeted by a drawn-out — and to this day, unresolved — investigation of former president Moshe Katsav, many Israelis are starting to lose faith in the effectiveness of the attorney general and the police to efficiently address wrongdoing among politicians.

Wrongdoing by top officials must be investigated and, as appropriate, prosecuted with all deliberate speed. When police, prosecutors and judges allow cases to meander along for months and years while the prospective defendants are tried in the media, the real loser is the political system's legitimacy.

More than a year ago, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz approved a criminal investigation into allegations that Olmert received special favors while purchasing his Cremieux Street home in Jerusalem. Three other separate probes are looking into other allegations of misconduct on Olmert's part while holding various cabinet posts prior to his becoming prime minister.

Now, police are looking into this new case involving Taplansky. That the attorney general says that he's not asking Olmert to step down and is promising an "expedited" investigation is small consolation. No one should be above the law. But neither should anyone — not even an unpopular prime minister — be trampled by it.

Given the composition of his governing coalition and absent an indictment, Olmert may be able to hang on as the investigation continues. And, of course, he is presumed innocent unless proven otherwise.

Nonetheless, the premier must be afforded the expedited opportunity to refute the latest charges, must utilize that opportunity, and must urge anyone else involved to testify forthrightly as well. Saying that he will resign if indicted is simply not good enough because the insistent agenda of this country cannot be put on hold while Olmert and his key advisers are distracted.

Israel's governance is too challenging a burden for a leader preoccupied with facing down investigators in a complex financial scandal. If Olmert can't put this latest scandal to rest without delay, he must hand over the reins of power. The welfare of the country demands it.

Elliot Jager is editorial-page editor of The Jerusalem Post.


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