Corruption Allegations Tarnish Israel’s Image

As this edition of the St. Louis Jewish Light goes to press, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert continues to be investigated by Israeli authorities for potential corruption charges, which could result in his indictment and resignation, or his forced removal from office at the hands of his own Kadima Party. Press reports indicate that Olmert, whose approval rating had already been in the single digits since his perceived poor performance during the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon two years ago, could be charged with accepting a bribe in connection with having received over $150,000 from American businessman Morris “Moshe” Talansky of Woodmere, N.Y. Olmert has insisted that he never personally received any money, and that the funds were raised legally for his political campaigns. The funds had apparently been given when Olmert served as mayor of Jerusalem and later as Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor in a Likud government.

Olmert has said that he would resign as prime minister if he is indicted, but there have already been calls for him to resign by Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader who is serving as Minister of Defense in his Cabinet, and by his fellow Kadima Party member, Tzipi Livni, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, who is believed likely to succeed to the prime minister post should Olmert resign. If the government itself falls as a result of the scandal, a caretaker Cabinet would take over until elections could be scheduled.

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Olmert’s troubles come at an especially sensitive and challenging time for Israel. Olmert was in Washington just last week, meeting with President George W. Bush in an effort to re-energize the stalled peace process with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Even if the negotiations could be put back on track toward their goal of a two-state solution, it is highly doubtful that a much-weakened Olmert would be able to secure enough Cabinet and Knesset support for any concessions that might be needed to secure a deal.

The latest scandals involving Olmert, who certainly deserves the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty — contribute to the tarnishing of Israel’s image as a model democracy. In its early years, while there were scandals from time to time, there were also larger-than-life-sized personalities who dominated Israeli politics, who were respected not only in the Jewish State, but around the world. Leaders like David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban and Golda Meir were statesmen and women of the first rank. More recently, we have not only witnessed Olmert’s mounting troubles, but also the recent forced resignation of former Israeli President Moshe Katzav, over serious charges of abuse of power and sexual misconduct while in office.

The scandals which have taken place in recent years in Israel do indeed tarnish the almost mythic image of the Jewish State as the only democracy in the Middle East. But as Winston Churchill once famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government in the world, except in comparison to any other form of government.” By that quote, Churchill meant that democracy is frequently untidy and even messy. With a vigorous free press, the “dirty linen” of public figures is aired in public.

With the resignation of Moshe Katzav as President, the Israeli Knesset elected Shimon Peres, the last active Israeli leader from the founding days of David Ben-Gurion as its head of state. Clearly, Shimon Peres, like his mythic counterparts of Israel’s storied past, continues to represent the very best qualities in the Israeli democratic system, and his election is proof that Israel’s democracy remains vigorous and healthy.

If Olmert is forced to resign, either Tzipi Livni or another deserving leader will be available to take over as prime minister to provide the needed leadership to move Israel forward.

Yes, the scandals and continued allegations against Israeli political figures are disturbing. But as an enduring democracy for the past 60 years, the Jewish State has proved time and again that its democratic system is equipped to deal with such situations. The American Jewish community, including the 60,000 members of the Jewish community of St. Louis, still have every good reason to strongly support Israel as a true democracy, a great friend and strategic asset to the United States, and as a light unto the nations. Those enduring realities continue even as Israel passes through transitory challenges to its political leadership.