Morris met Olmert at Shaare Tzedek in Jerusalem during the Gulf War, in 1991, when Morris was trying to raise money to buy gas masks. Olmert, who was touring the hospital, was the Israeli minister of Health, a rising political star, and a macher in his own right. Olmert was raised to be a politician. His father had been a founder of the right-wing Likud Party. When Olmert went to the Knesset at 28, the youngest member ever elected, he was considered a “Prince of the Likud,” a title that enchanted Morris. Olmert was right-wing to the core. He didn’t want to appease the enemy, which pleased the Long Island Orthodox. He’d even voted against peace with Egypt.
Olmert’s political rise led to an expansion of his social world. He became friends with the wealthiest people in Israel and traveled frequently to the United States, where he was invited into the homes of some of Manhattan’s wealthiest Jews. “Olmert’s eyes popped out [at the luxury]. All of ours did,” one Israeli official told me.
Olmert fell for New York. He loved its pace, its international air, its many pleasures—the NBA, Broadway, museums, good restaurants (the Tribeca Grill, Union Pacific, for instance). And then, like every successful Israeli politician, he understood the appeal of affluent New York Jewry. “These Jews stayed and decided to get wealthy,” that Israeli official explained to me. “Israeli politicians come to collect their 5 percent commission.” Olmert knew how to play on their guilt in service of a cause that, at least sometimes, was his career.
Not that Olmert was entirely cynical. Some privately mocked the idealized view of Israel held by Jews like Morris as “a Jewish fairyland,” as one Israel observer told me. But Olmert agreed with Morris that Israel was the only place for a Jew. Once, at a lunch meeting, Olmert screamed at an American Jewish writer, “What kind of authentic Jewish life can you live in America?”
One day, Olmert confided to Morris that he hoped to be mayor of Jerusalem, the holiest of cities. And he wanted Morris’s support.
Morris might be a star in some arenas; he knew Olmert outshone him. “Olmert was the leader that I would have hoped to be if I had the talent,” says Morris, who quickly jumped onboard. Together, Olmert let him know, they could fulfill their shared dreams of a Greater Israel. Some Israelis wanted to return captured parts of Israel, including part of Jerusalem, to the Palestinians in exchange for peace. Not Olmert. “In the beginning, Olmert said Jerusalem was going to remain united,” Morris recalls. “I thought he was going to build this thing”—Jerusalem—“into the Jewish home we always yearned for.”
In religious Long Island, Morris turned his considerable energies to Udi, as he called Olmert. There wasn’t much traction at first. “He had no support, he knew no one. I was the one that got him going when no one was interested in him,” says Morris.
Morris called one rabbi with whom he’d been in business to set up a parlor meeting, a small fund-raiser. They gathered in an air-conditioned living room. Morris introduced Udi, wasting no words. “He is going to save … Israel,” he said. The listeners slipped cash into envelopes and left them on their chairs. Morris added his own contribution. Then, he says, he passed the cash, in envelopes, to Olmert or his assistant.
In 1993, Olmert won by a landslide over the incumbent, the legendary left-winger Teddy Kollek, to become the mayor of Jerusalem, a post Olmert would hold for ten years. Morris’s reputation rose accordingly. “People knew that I knew him and I could get him to come,” Morris says modestly. It was one of Olmert’s rewards to Morris. If you wanted Olmert to speak, you went through Morris. Olmert also rewarded Morris with his affection. “Olmert loved me,” Morris told the court.
“In what way did he show it?” an Israeli prosecutor asked.
Morris ticked off the evidence. Whenever Morris visited Jerusalem and stopped by Olmert’s office to drop off cash, Olmert came out to greet him, no matter how busy he was. He gave Morris a hug. “A big hug,” Morris told the court. Olmert attended Morris’s grandson’s bar mitzvah and sent Morris a very beautiful message on his 70th birthday. Morris still recalled the gist: If ever he were in trouble, he’d want Morris to stand by his side. There were other things, too. Mostly, though, it was the feeling that Morris had. “You can tell after many, many years how people feel about you,” says Morris. “You can tell when somebody says something whether it’s just to make you feel good. I hope I’m a good judge of character.”