ISRAELI PROSECUTOR: Please go on and tell us what you mean by “intense relationship” [with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert].
MORRIS TALANSKY: I really loved the man. I really did.
ISRAELI PROSECUTOR: What was Prime Minister Olmert’s attitude toward you?
MORRIS TALANSKY: He loved me.
Morris Talansky, the rabbi and Long Island businessman whose testimony brought down the prime minister of Israel, instructs me to meet him in Lawrence, a few minutes from his home in Woodsburgh, Long Island. “There’s a kosher Dunkin’ Donuts,” he says curtly.
The Dunkin’ Donuts is in the Five Towns (Hewlett, Lawrence, Inwood, Woodmere, which includes Woodsburgh, and Cedarhurst), the suburban homeland that Jews have carved out of Long Island sprawl. Driving there, I pass landscaped yards—hydrangeas are in bloom—and subdevelopments with gently winding roads. From one I can see a country club, a seat of the Five Towns aristocracy, which is for all intents and purposes exclusively Jewish.
The Dunkin’ Donuts shares none of the neighborhood’s joyful materialism. There’s a Formica counter, a dimpled drop ceiling, and, off to the side, a cheerless sitting area that management has tried to liven up with loud pop music. I spot one seated customer. He is unshaven, with several days of cottony white stubble. He’s pivoted toward me, slumped against the back of the chair.
“Morris?” I ask. I don’t recognize him, though I’d seen him in Israel the week before.
He nods, though barely. He looks worn out.
Morris is angry with the media, which he blames for the recent turn in his life. For a time, his business life was in shambles. Friends peeled away. In shul, people he’s known for years engage in lashon hara, evil gossip, and against a fellow Jew, whispering about his motives, his credibility, his complicated business life.
“I hope God makes them pay for what they did to me,” Morris has said. He means the media.
Of course, it wasn’t the media that got Morris involved in this mess. Partly it was his own ideals. Morris had loved the idea of Israel from the time he was a little boy growing up in Brooklyn. As he climbed ladders, both spiritual and material, his devotion had blossomed. One consequence was a close relationship with Ehud Olmert, an ambitious, skilled, and tenacious Israeli politician who was climbing himself, from Knesset member to minister of Health to mayor of Jerusalem and finally to prime minister. To Morris, Olmert almost seemed like an incarnation of Israel. “Olmert talked about the hopes and dreams as well as the struggles of Israel,” says Morris. “There was no one more articulate.” For Morris, Olmert became a cause. As Olmert ascended, so did Morris.
Then this past April, while Morris visited his apartment in Jerusalem, the Israeli police pounded on his door one Sunday at 6 a.m. They took him to the station. They confiscated his passport, interrogated him nine times, and, before their corruption investigation was even complete, rushed him onto the witness stand. If they had waited, Morris might have disappeared back to Long Island, they claimed.
Morris took the stand about a month later and, under questioning by the prosecutor, told an explosive story. Morris estimated that over the past fifteen years, he’d given his friend Olmert $150,000.
“What way did you hand over the money?” the prosecutor asked.
“In an envelope,” said Morris.
Investigators insinuated that the money was in exchange for official favors, and that there were hundreds of thousands of dollars at issue. But Morris, like Olmert, insisted that the “cash envelopes,” as they were called in Israel, weren’t bribes intended to promote Morris’s ventures. In fact, Morris didn’t seem to have many business interests that Olmert might help; Olmert did try to open at least one door for “my dear friend,” as he called Morris, though that had been quickly slammed shut. The money seemed more in the manner of friendly gifts. Morris picked up some tabs; lent Olmert money for, Morris said, a vacation; and contributed to his campaigns. Morris passed along his own money, and also raised funds at kaffeeklatsch events.
But the image of the country’s top official tucking envelopes of cash into his suitcase, as Morris described, looked unseemly at best. Olmert had long been an unpopular prime minister. A half-dozen other investigations are circling around him. But it was the vivid imagery supplied by his friend that finally undid the prime minister. Israelis already suspected he was corrupt; now they had a picture, even if it wasn’t exactly a smoking gun. “Talansky robbed him of whatever popularity he had,” Nachum Barnea, one of the country’s leading newspaper columnists, told me.