In July, Morris returned from Long Island without protest to face cross-examination in a Jerusalem courtroom. Olmert’s attorneys had no choice but to go to work on his reputation. In this project, there was plenty to work with. Morris had done more than his share of yelling, badgering, and, as the defense charged, intimidating in and around the Five Towns. Over the years, his religious and business lives had become completely intertwined. Any half-diligent gumshoe would stumble over Morris’s detractors in Long Island shuls, some of whom were truly afraid of the elderly rabbi. The defense had little trouble painting an unflattering picture. They suggested Morris was a shady hustler who was willing to launder money, bend the truth, and bully those who he believed had done him wrong.
At the Dunkin’ Donuts, Cyndi Lauper plays loudly overhead. Morris appears hurt, offended. His grievances multiply as we talk. He wants an apology. Morris hunches forward. A middle button strains.
“Me, a gangster? Come on,” he says. His pouty cheeks deflate. His tone says, Look at me. Morris, it’s true, does not look the part. At 75, he’s got cotton-white hair topped, always, by a black yarmulke. His round paunch settles on top of his belt, which he occasionally pauses to adjust. Morris has great-grandchildren, one of whom, he tells me, wanted to know if Zaide really hit people. “Only you, if you’re bad,” he told her. “Then I’ll give you a potch in the tuchis.”
“I’m a victim in all this,” Morris insists. “Definitely.”
Perhaps the worst of it is that he hasn’t been able to talk to his friend and onetime idol, his strongest bond to the promised land. It’s all so unfortunate. Morris says it wasn’t his intention to do in Olmert. He still recalls the time Olmert said, In America, the Talansky family is my family. Morris likes thinking about that. “We had a very strong friendship,” says Morris. “I truly loved the man.”
The object of Morris’s affection has a different view of their relationship. Ehud Olmert invites me to the prime minister’s official residence on the day that Morris completes his cross-examination. That afternoon, there’d been a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. A bulldozer overturned cars on King David Street, until a passerby shot the driver dead. At the residence, a security guard tests my tape recorder for traces of explosive, but no one mentions the attack; it’s business as usual.
Another guard leads me into a small waiting area, which looks to have been decorated on the cheap, if at all. One painting is stapled to the wall. A forlorn wire basket holds fake fruit. Suddenly, from the other end of the house, I hear a voice. It is the prime minister himself who calls to me from his office, waving warmly, his hand over his head.
Olmert’s office is a modest ground-floor room at the other end of the residence. There are few furnishings: bookshelves; a wide, clean desk; a couple of armchairs. Israel, I’ve been constantly told, is an informal place. Still, I am surprised to find the prime minister in jeans and sandals. It’s 6 p.m. Olmert quickly lets me know that his lawyers are on the way. We may have to reconvene later.
Olmert is circumspect on the subject of Morris Talansky. “He’s committed to Israel. I don’t question that,” he says. That had been their strongest tie. “I don’t think he turned against me because he wanted to knock me out. I think he was just frightened in a country that is not his own.” Olmert’s implication is that he concocted tales to please the police.
Olmert believes that the police are the true villains in the story. “Self-appointed soldiers of justice,” he calls them. “Talansky said the police put words in his mouth,” he says. (Tapes of some police interrogations support the point. In one of the interrogations, Morris said he was angry that Olmert diverted political contributions to pay for personal expenses. “How do you know that?” the police promptly asked. “Because you’re telling me this,” responded an exasperated Morris. “You intimated that it was not used for the proper purposes … ”)
Morris had been a flawed witness for the prosecution. Olmert’s lawyers had assailed his reputation, and then highlighted problems with his testimony. Morris said he’d lent Olmert money for a 2004 vacation to Italy, for instance. Olmert’s lawyers showed an excerpt of the police interrogation. In it Morris couldn’t at first remember the size of the supposed loan, which in any event Olmert denies ever took place. As much as $50,000, Morris told the police. But the police point out that Morris’s bank records show no withdrawal at the time. Morris searched for an answer. “Maybe I brought the money with me [to Israel] or maybe I borrowed it,” Morris told the police, though minutes earlier he’d said he’d never bring that much money into the country. Morris’s faulty memory of sometimes distant events didn’t matter. His story solidified an impression of Olmert: He was not only cunning but integrity-free. “Olmert’s ATM,” one paper called Morris.