Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been in trouble many times in the course of his long and colorful political career.

As mayor of Jerusalem, he was suspected of accepting bribes in the “Greek-island affair” involving former premier Ariel Sharon and his son, Omri (who was eventually convicted and jailed for seven months); but the case against Olmert was closed in 2004 without charges.  In 2006, an inquiry was opened on the 1999 sale and lease-back of Olmert’s house in Jerusalem, which allegedly netted him some $330,000, leading to a criminal investigation a year later.  In January 2007, he was the subject of another inconclusive criminal investigation over accusations that, as finance minister in late 2005, he tried to help a close personal associate buy the state-owned Bank Leumi.  Last year, his political opponents accused him of improper business dealings and conflict of interest during his tenure as minister of trade and industry.

In all those cases, however, no smoking gun was revealed, leading Olmert to conclude somewhat smugly that he was “indestructible.”

The latest investigation involving Olmert is different.  It was opened in early May not in response to media reports or investigations by the state comptroller but as a result of information revealed during earlier probes.  According to an Israeli-police statement, “The investigation deals with suspicions that the prime minister received significant sums of money from a foreigner or number of foreign individuals over an extended period of time.”  A police spokesman named American-Jewish businessman Morris Talansky as a key witness, along with Olmert’s long-time secretary, Shula Zaken, and his former law partner, Uri Messer.  Investigators are said to have cracked coded notes kept by Zaken of sums given by Talansky, to whom she referred in her notes as “The Laundry Man.”

Olmert denies any wrongdoing and says that he will resign only if indicted.  “I look each and every one of you in the eye and say, I never took bribes,” he declared in a televised address on May 8.  “I never took a penny for myself.”   He said all the cash he received was legitimate support from Talansky to fund various election bids, including two successful campaigns for mayor of Jerusalem in 1993 and 1998, a failed candidacy for the Likud leadership in 1999, and a further internal Likud election in 2002.  He also said Talansky “helped me cover deficits” after elections.

Talansky’s Israeli-court testimony on May 27 presented a darker picture, however.  Talansky said he had handed over about $150,000 of his own money to Olmert, directly and through aides, over a 15-year period, and additional sums from fundraising.  He did not know how the money had been spent: “I only know he loved expensive cigars.  I know he loved pens, watches.”  According to Talansky, on one occasion Olmert also asked him for a personal loan of $25,000 for a holiday in Italy.  On another, he walked to a bank to withdraw $15,000 in cash for a loan as Olmert waited in a nearby New York hotel; neither loan has been repaid.  Talansky also covered some of Olmert’s expenses during speaking tours of the United States, above what Olmert received from the institutions hosting him.  In the final years of their relationship, according to Talansky, he brought Olmert ten envelopes stuffed with cash in New York and gave a number of additional envelopes to his secretary.

After Talansky’s testimony, Olmert came under pressure to go.  Former prime minister Ehud Barak was the first government minister serving in Olmert’s coalition to call for his resignation.  “Considering the challenges Israel faces, including Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria, Iran, the captured soldiers and the peace process, the prime minister cannot simultaneously lead the government and conduct his personal affairs,” Barak, who holds the crucial defense portfolio, told a press conference in the Knesset.  Another minister belonging to Labor, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, called upon Olmert’s centrist Kadima Party to do some soul searching and make “difficult decisions,” because “an Israeli prime minister must be completely available to deal with the country’s problems and not other matters.”

Similar calls have come from within Kadima, with Knesset member Amir Dotan urging Olmert to demonstrate “personal leadership” by quitting.  Her colleague Ze’ev Elkin declared that “the prime minister must resign . . . Israel cannot allow such a situation to go on.”  Even Olmert’s staunch loyalists, such as Kadima deputy Yoel Hasson, have said that Olmert should “carefully consider his position in light of the circumstances.”

Regardless of Olmert’s eventual fate, the loser in the affair is the flagging “peace process” with the Palestinians; but that process was not going anywhere anyway.  More interestingly, the announcement that Israel is now engaged in negotiations with Syria may be indicative of Olmert’s desire to divert attention from his legal troubles and to earn some brownie points with the “doves.”  There is a precedent for such a strategy: In the summer of 2005, Ariel Sharon suddenly and unilaterally evacuated Gaza, thus drawing attention away from his own role in the Greek-island affair.

A year ago I talked at some length with a man who knows Olmert well, his advisor on Christian affairs during the second of his two terms as mayor of Jerusalem (1993-2003).  Shmuel Evyatar says that his old boss cannot imagine himself as a former politician: “To him, political power is everything, an end in itself, the purpose of his very existence; he is a politician with a big P.”

The syndrome sounds familiar, especially after the Democratic primaries, and the prediction is easy to make: Olmert may “consider his position,” but he will not go short of an indictment, and even then he will continue to protest his innocence, regardless of the evidence or of the eventual verdict.  A Politician, indeed.