As judicial officials loosened the gag on the media that had been in place here in Israel regarding an investigation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the story broke. Most of you are likely already familiar with at least some of the details, as they were released first by the NY Post and then the NY Times.
Olmert is being alleged to have illegally received hundreds of thousands of dollars from persons in the US ("foreign nationals") when he was running for the office of mayor of Jerusalem (he first ran in 1993 and again in 1998) and then when he was minister of labor, trade and industry. The money came, all or for the most part, as campaign contributions — either to the mayoral campaign or to Likud (which was Olmert’s party before he joined Kadima).
The receipt by Olmert of this illegal money is alleged to have taken place over an extended period of time, and is being called "bribery" by law enforcement officials. There is still no public indication of what was allegedly being "bought" with this money.
The key state’s witness against Olmert is American millionaire businessman Moshe Talansky, 75, who either provided the money or served as the middleman for it. Talansky lives in Long Island but also has an apartment here in Jerusalem. He served for years as the executive director of the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center and is CEO of the Globes Resources Group investment firm.
According to Haaretz, Olmert has known Talansky for many years, and used to refer to him as "my dear old friend," while Olmert’s close aides referred to him as "the banker" or "the launderer."
Reportedly, Talansky was being questioned in connection with some other issue here when the matter of foreign donations to Olmert came up and Talansky offered to cooperate in supplying information.
As alleged by one of my sources , what Talansky did was to offer to turn state’s witness on a new issue in an effort to protect himself from further investigation on the original issue. It seems from this allegation that investigators were not even looking for information on the matter of Olmert having accepted money from foreign nationals, but that it literally fell in their laps by virtue of what Talansky offered.
Testimony has been taken from Talansky , in anticipation that he will be returning to the States.
The situation has further been complicated by the fact that long-time Olmert confidant, attorney Uri Messer, is also cooperating with police in this matter, although he has not turned state’s witness. Messer’s testimony allegedly implicates Olmert’s former bureau chief Shula Zaken, who has not been cooperating with police. In 1998, Messer headed an organization called "United Jerusalem," co-founded by Olmert and Talansky, which was supposed to promote projects for Jerusalem and also ran Olmert’s campaign for mayor. It was Messer, according to Olmert, who handled all the money donated or collected by Talansky.
Last year Messer’s name made news when State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss issued a report to Mazuz that included suspicions that when Olmert was secretary of labor, trade and industry, he had granted favors to a factory represented by Messer. This report generated one of four earlier investigations against Olmert currently pending.
One of the things that makes this investigation more serious than the previous four is that this is the first time there are willing, cooperative witnesses. With the other investigations there are suspicions that must be corroborated by tedious efforts such as checking a trail of bank records.
Late last night, after the gag had been lifted , Olmert called in impromptu press conference at which he declared:
"Citizens of Israel, I look you in the eye and I say to you, in no uncertain terms, I have never taken a bribe, nor have I unlawfully pocketed money."
Anyone who wishes to believe this is certainly free to do so.
Olmert also pledged that if Mazuz indicts him , he will step down from his position as prime minister.
Needless to say, all of this is going to impinge on the "peace negotiations."
Kaled Abu Toameh in the Post is citing PA officials who say that Olmert is misleading the public when he speaks of progress in the talks. Said one PA official, "If Olmert has problems with the police because of financial corruption, that’s his problem. But he should not use the peace talks as an excuse to divert attention from the police inquiry."
Other briefs now:
— The PA, which just brought 600 police into Jenin to restore law and order, is now saying 1,500 police are required.
— Jordan has banned all commemorations of "Nakba" — which means "catastrophe’ and is how the Palestinians refer to Israeli Independence Day. Islamicists, who had planned events, were furious. It seems to me that this is a development of import, one I’d like to explore further soon.
— Assad says he will not cut ties with Iran or Hezbollah and that this is "irrelevant" to holding peace talks with Israel. It’s not irrelevant to Israel.
— Lebanon appears on the verge of civil war as Iranian backed Shiite forces loyal to Hezbollah have taken control of parts of Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut and are surrounding government offices. This is in response to a declaration by the government that Hezbollah’s communication system was illegal.
More after Shabbat.