I ask what he’s learned in nearly three years as prime minister. “The limits of power,” he says, as if it is a punch line.
How can he continue under such conditions? I ask.
“I’m still here because I think that my performance is effective,” he says.
Of course, that’s less and less true. Olmert no longer has room to maneuver. His peace initiative with the Palestinians, like all his initiatives, is now viewed as a ploy to retain power.
Olmert, though, isn’t one to linger over bad news. Blue smoke floats in the air. The prime minister leans forward. He seems to consciously shake off maudlin thoughts. He won’t concede. “I think over the last two and half years”—his term in office—“most of my decisions have been good ones.” He even defends the botched war in Lebanon, which triggered the first calls for his resignation. “For two years, there hasn’t been one bullet fired on the border,” he tells me. Perhaps, I think, Sharon could have made that argument with the public. Olmert’s approval rating fell as low as 3 percent after the war.
But Olmert is revving up, warming to his accomplishments. He is not a criminal, no matter what the public thinks. He is prime minister. “Last year was best year in history of Israeli economy,” he tells me. “And I was in charge of the economy for the last three years. We invest more in education, more in welfare than ever, and we have a better network of international relations.”
Ask Gordon Brown, or George W. Bush, his good friend whose photo hangs on the wall behind me. Ask Merkel and Sarkozy, or Tony Blair, who calls him regularly. Olmert is a world leader among world leaders, he likes to point out. They sit in the same chairs we now occupy, with their cigars and their espressos. They, he seems to say, respect him and appreciate his powers of persuasion, his hard-won accomplishments, even if his constituents don’t. “Personal relations are important,” Olmert tells me. “I’m not a naïve guy. I know national interests are important. But if you can speak to a guy like a human being and he responds to you like a human being, then it helps. If you ask me at the end of the day, ‘What is my gift?,’ it’s that I can talk to people about what’s important.”
It’s 11 p.m., and our time is up. Olmert still has work to do. Tomorrow, he will host a dinner for Barack Obama. Olmert walks me to the door. We are alone. I ask him if he imagines his enemies cheering.
“What I think about is what’s good for my country,” he says. “I hope that we will not stop the important things that we are involved with now, which largely depend on the prime minister. I’ve been living with them for two and a half years,” he confides. That is what he should say. He moves in close. “If I resign, I don’t give a damn what my enemies think.”
It’s better that way, since, as one person close to him told me, “Olmert is so isolated, almost everyone is his enemy.”
On July 30, a week after our conversation, Olmert announces he will step down after his party’s elections, which are scheduled for September 17. The moment I hear the news, I call Morris, who hadn’t heard. I mention that Olmert’s downfall is a result of Morris’s testimony.
“Not because of me?” Morris asks. He seems taken aback.
“Come on, come on.”
“That’s what they’re saying,” I tell him. The next day, the Times writes without attribution: “In the end, though, it was the testimony of Mr. Talansky from Long Island that brought the prime minister down.”
“Oh, that’s what they said? That it was me that did it? Nah.” He mentions the other investigations. A prosecutor is considering charges. Olmert could be indicted.
I ask how he feels about the prime minister’s departure. Olmert is a man he loved.
“I feel the way I feel about the whole thing, very bad,” Morris says. “You know, come on. I don’t know how to describe the whole thing.” There’s a pause. Morris contemplates. Then he’s philosophical. “He’s a guy who gets himself into messes,” he offers, which may be one of their links. Morris knows something about attracting messes. “That’s what I don’t understand about him,” he says. “Maybe it’s a death wish.”
Perhaps, I think, Morris is hurt. He’d helped Olmert so much. When it counted, the Long Island macher had lent his good name, his considerable, if local, influence to the cause of Olmert. For that Morris saw his dream of an undivided Israel abandoned. And he got condescended to by the person whom, as he saw it, he’d helped create. Morris must appreciate the irony: Olmert is chased from office for schnorring of his own, holding his hand out, in effect, to Morris Talansky.