JERUSALEM In 1988, reporting on a visit by then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to the US, then Jerusalem Post Washington correspondent Wolf Blitzer noted: “Shamir was joined at the UN and throughout his four-day visit to New York by Ehud Olmert, the savvy Likud MK who came to the US to help the prime minister raise funds for the upcoming election campaign.
“Olmert, a frequent guest on American television programs, is clearly a political asset… Shamir himself does not ask for money for the partys coffers. ‘He never discusses it,’ insisted the now prime minister, implying that such a request would demean the prime ministers dignity.”
So, presumably, would accepting envelopes of cash whose origins are vague and whose destination is unrecorded from American-Jewish businessmen perhaps looking for favors.
So how is it that the wily “political asset” who once knew that prime ministers have to be buffered from such doings, now finds himself being accused of just such things?
And how did the young Knesset member, who made his name in the 1970s as a crusader against corruption and political-influence peddling, end up so perilously close to losing the premiership on the basis of these allegations?
The answers to both these questions are rooted in Olmerts long history as a highly successful political fundraiser toiling in the lush financial vineyards of Diaspora Jewry a role that helped propel his domestic political career forward, and now threatens to end it.
It is no coincidence that the current judicial inquiry against him on allegations of receiving illicit funds from US businessman Morris Talansky, as well as three of the four prior police inquiries against him, directly involve wealthy Diaspora Jews who have provided donations to Olmert or to the political parties he has represented.
The 29-year-old Olmert entered the Knesset in 1974 as its youngest member, and as a member of a dissident wing within the Likud called the Free Center Party.
As a back back-bencher, he first made his name by launching several highly publicized campaigns sometimes in tandem with an equally youthful Labor MK named Yossi Sarid against organized crime and its reputed links to highly placed legitimate figures.
That gained him impressive publicity, but did little to endear him to his Likud comrades. What did, though, was his skill at fundraising abroad, a talent he demonstrated at the very start of his career.
One American Jew who has at various times been associated with Olmerts efforts in this field recalls him from a trip to the US on behalf of Israel Bonds soon after becoming a MK.
“It was an environment in which he absolutely thrived,” he recalls. “Already then Olmert could effectively communicate, speaking an English that was among the very best of the Likud leadership cadre of the 1970s and ’80s.”
If lacking in charisma, Olmerts fundraising skills abroad indeed made him a valuable asset to his party, and despite his lack of ministerial status he soon become a regular fixture on Likud leader Shamirs visits to the US.
These Diaspora contacts also helped Olmerts burgeoning private legal practice when the law allowed such moonlighting for MKs.
In 1987 he represented a group of Diaspora businessmen as they successfully negotiated the purchase of a substantial stake in the Israel Land Development Corporation.
This mix of personal, political and financial connections also caused Olmert some early trouble when questions were raised about a $50,000 interest-free loan he received from the North American Bank in 1981, but he avoided a police probe when no connection was found between the loan and any of his actions as an MK.
As Olmert rose in domestic political status he continued his foreign fundraising, although in a markedly different style.
“When Olmert started in the 1970s, he would occasionally sleep on peoples couches in the US,” says the source cited above.
“But he became fixated on these mega-wealthy individuals, their power, their wealth; he liked the receptions in their mansions, and fancy hotel suites, a tendency I saw growing over the years.
“By the time he was mayor of Jerusalem, his willingness to do some really non-self-serving things had become coupled with a real intense demand for super-VIP treatment.
“For example, I remember when he was once asked to take time out to do a day of fundraising for a certain medical institution, which he generously agreed to do. But when one of his flights was canceled, he demanded that a privately-charted plane be provided which was highly unusual in these kind of circumstances.”
So much of Olmerts political advancement and personal financial well-being was tied up with the contacts he made while successfully fundraising abroad, it seems he was reluctant to delegate the nitty-gritty of this task to others, even long past a stage when he should have, if only to insulate himself from possible conflict-of-interest charges or potential violations of campaign-financing laws.
This seems to be one of the key differences between him and other political figures who have been accused of similar actions, such as Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon.
Those figures seem to have had the common sense, or at least listened to good advice, not to continue doing business directly with a figure such as Talansky a relatively minor businessman with a history of contentious legal disputes by the time they had become senior government ministers.
One would have expected better of the prime minister, long considered one of the shrewdest legal and political minds in government.
Certainly Olmert should have known better, and now it may be too late. Back in 1988, he told the Post about his fundraising efforts abroad: “If Jews in America want to help me and they agree with my views about the future of Israel, why not?”
He may soon have a very belated answer to that question.