Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s future could lie in the hands of a millionaire Long Island rabbi and businessman who is reportedly set to testify as early as this week that he gave bribes to Olmert while Olmert served as Jerusalem’s mayor from 1999 to 2002.
Police reportedly questioned the rabbi, identified by the New York Post as Morris Talansky of Woodmere, L.I., when he arrived in Israel to spend Passover with his son and daughter, who live there. Israeli media said he was cooperating with authorities and that he was prepared to testify perhaps this week under questioning by both prosecutors and lawyers for Olmert so that he could return to his home on Long Island.
It is unclear what the bribes were for, but police officials have been quoted as saying this investigation is more serious than the three other probes Olmert has faced.
Rabbi Talansky is known to have served as treasurer for the New Jerusalem Foundation, a charity Olmert founded reportedly because he had no control over the existing Jerusalem Foundation.
Political opponents were said to have charged that the New Jerusalem Foundation was used more for political purposes than to help local charities. And Rabbi Talansky, 75, was reportedly listed in Olmert’s logs as “The Laundry Man.”
In 2000, the relatively little-known charity raised $376,000, according to its tax returns, and its Web site said its mission is to enhance the “social and economic development and redevelopment of Jerusalem.”
Rabbi Talansky was ordained at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1956, according to a Yeshiva spokeswoman, and led congregations in Portland, Ore., and Far Rockaway, Queens, before going into fundraising.
He served as executive director of American Friends of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, holding the position from the mid-1980s until 1997, according to the organization’s current director, Paul Glasser.
As the rabbi’s wealth grew over time, he became involved in supporting a number of Jewish organizations, most of them Orthodox. Among them was Migdal Ohr, an organization that helps underprivileged children in northern Israel and where he served as the board chairman, and the Mesorah Heritage Foundation, which raises money for the Jewish book publisher ArtScroll. Rabbi Talansky once donated $100,000 to the foundation in honor of his mother’s 99th birthday, according to the foundation’s executive director, Meir Zlotowitz.
He has lived in several upscale Jewish neighborhoods on Long Island, including Lawrence, Great Neck and Woodmere.
Rabbi Yaakov Lerner of the Young Israel of Great Neck, where Rabbi Talansky once was a member, would not comment for this story.
Though he is a registered Democrat, according to The New York Times, Rabbi Talansky also has donated to hawkishly pro-Israel U.S. Republicans. He gave $1,000 to the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2003 and some $5,000 to an exploratory committee for Rudolph Giuliani in 2000.
Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon, was caught up in two investigations of his own, neither resulting in any charges against him. In one, his son Gilad received $700,000 from a Likud Party activist in exchange for lobbying for a development deal on a Greek Island. In the other, an overseas Sharon supporter lent Sharon money through Gilad to pay off a political debt. That loan eventually became a gift.
Sharon’s other son, Omri, is now serving a seven-month prison term for his involvement in campaign finance fraud stemming from his father’s 1999 candidacy for prime minister.
This new criminal investigation of Olmert could quicken the pace of peace talks or create such a distraction that nothing is accomplished.
“The uncertainty is not a healthy situation,” said Arie Kacowicz, a professor in the Hebrew University’s International Relations Department.
He recalled that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was under criminal investigation when he sought to develop a withdrawal plan from the Gaza Strip.
“There was a saying that the depth of the withdrawal would be as deep as the political investigation,” Kacowicz said.
It was thus with a jaundiced eye that Israelis heard Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, tell reporters Monday following Olmert’s meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: “Those were the most serious talks the two sides have ever held.”
A senior Palestinian source was later quoted by the Israeli news organization YNet as saying the Palestinian Authority fears that “everything that happens now between Israel and us will be useless and a waste of time.”
He said he was surprised to hear Olmert’s office report progress in the talks, reportedly on the issue of borders.
“We highly doubt his ability to advance matters,” the source said.
Next week, President George W. Bush is expected to arrive in Israel to join in the country’s 60th birthday celebrations and to try to nudge along the peace talks.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said “anything is possible” during Bush’s trip.
“There is a rush to announce some sort of a breakthrough [in the talks], but at the same time we have a government that may not be in existence and a prime minister who may be forced to resign before, during or after the visit,” he said. “Whatever is announced during the visit should be treated with a great deal of skepticism.”
Steinberg pointed out that there is a “lot of opposition in Israel – not only from the right but from the center within Olmert’s own party – to any agreement on borders or Jerusalem with Abbas or to a cease-fire with Hamas.”
The criminal investigation was revealed late last week after Attorney General Menachem Mazuz issued a special order Thursday night deeming this an urgent probe. Olmert, 62, was questioned just hours later at his home by the head of the police department’s National Fraud Unit and two other investigators. After more than an hour of questioning, the police officers met with Mazuz to discuss further strategy.
Although not directly linked to any of three pending investigations of Olmert, this investigation reportedly grew out of leads developed by police working on one of them.
In addition to Olmert, his longtime aide, Shula Zaken, was questioned. She has reportedly been quizzed on four separate occasions and is believed to have invoked her right to remain silent. She has been placed under house arrest through this week.
Should the probe result in Olmert’s indictment — he has denied any wrongdoing — he would be expected to step down if the charges were of sufficient gravity.
But with all of the talk of an impending indictment, political analysts caution that Olmert has so far weathered every criminal investigation against him.
And after the first Winograd report was released assessing Olmert’s handling of the war against Hezbollah, almost everyone gave him no more than a few weeks at most in office. He survived that too.
Just as the fate of Olmert’s government after the Winograd Commission report was salvaged by Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak when he declined to withdraw his party from Olmert’s coalition government, Barak once again may play a pivotal role. As the second biggest party in the coalition, he will have to decide whether to continue supporting Olmert.
Should Olmert be forced to suspend himself, will Barak agree to allow the deputy prime minister, Tzipi Livni, to become prime minister of a caretaker government in which he participates? If he withdraws and brings down the government, he would face new elections at a time when polls show the Likud Party headed by Benjamin Netanyahu would win most of the seats in the Knesset.
Already there seems to be a difference of opinion in the Labor Party. Ephraim Sneh, who criticized Barak this week for not doing enough to ease conditions for the Palestinians in the West Bank, tried to head off the feeding frenzy of anti-Olmert attacks. That may have been a signal that he believes Labor should do everything to stay in the government.
“Everyone is innocent until proven guilty,” he said, “and this golden rule applies to seven million Israelis — including the prime minister.”
But Labor lawmaker Eitan Cabel said that golden rule won’t count for much if the accusations are severe.
“That’s just in theory,” he said of Sneh’s comment. “If the affair is severe, with the proliferation of investigations, he’s become the most investigated prime minister in history. That’s not something negligible…. How many times can you be saved?”
Cabel noted that had it not been for the defection this week of three coalition Knesset members from the Pensioners party to the opposition, Olmert’s prospects for survival wouldn’t be changed. The first test of the coalition’s resilience in its new slimmed down majority of 64 (Kadima, Labor, Shas, and 4 instead of 7 Pensioners) will come during the budget voting slated for November.