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.
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.
But there is another point that especially irks the prime minister, a point of pride. If you read the Israeli press, Olmert complains, “Olmert wakes up with Talansky, spends the day with Talansky, and is his closest friend.” Of course, Olmert says, Morris was helpful at a certain point. But of what real significance is a man like Morris Talansky to a prime minister of Israel? Morris claims that over fifteen years he may have given Olmert $150,000, all of it before he was prime minister. Even if true, and Olmert denies it, so what? It was a trifling sum. Olmert points out that he spent a dozen times that when he first ran for mayor of Jerusalem.
Olmert is almost insulted by the insinuation that the would-be Five Towns macher was a close personal friend. Morris hadn’t been invited into Olmert’s personal life, hadn’t been to his home. I’d spoken to several of Olmert’s close friends; they hadn’t met Morris. To Olmert, Morris was one of many supporters, part of a crowd of helpful, devoted people. Olmert understood how Morris might get the wrong impression. Olmert has a politician’s talents for instant warmth, even with strangers. He tells stories and moves in close, as if confiding a secret to you alone. He is a toucher, an unembarrassed hugger. “He knows how to make people feel important,” says one person close to him. In another context, Olmert told me, “You have to win over people.”
If the prime minister viewed Morris as a means to an end, for Morris, Olmert was part of his Jewish journey and perhaps its high point. Morris was raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, a tough Brooklyn Jew. He was 6 when World War II erupted. Even for a child, the Holocaust was a horror, shaping his thoughts and reshaping his family. “We took in survivors,” Morris tells me. “They stayed with us two or three years, until they settled down.” For Morris, as for many in his generation, the Holocaust never went away. For many Jews, it triggered a theological crisis, particularly for the modern Orthodox like Morris. How could a Jew continue to believe in a benevolent God? The birth of Israel offered an answer if not a compensation.
Morris was 15 when Israel won its independence. “ ‘The sacredness of Israel’—we were brought up like that. Israel is the place where Jews finally had a homeland,” he tells me. “Ultimately, Israel is the place where a Jew can grow spiritually and intellectually and feel a part of the people. That’s why I devoted my life to Israel.”
In his twenties, Morris studied to be a rabbi and worked for half a dozen years in synagogues in Far Rockaway and Yonkers. It was fulfilling work, though not remunerative. Soon he left to work for the family real-estate business. Then, in his thirties, Morris turned to fund-raising for Israeli causes, a job that brought together his talents and aspirations. By 1967, he was one of the American directors of an Israeli group that funded trade schools. Morris took a dramatic view of his role. “It’s central to the survival of the Jewish people,” he tells me.
In 1978, he changed jobs, going to raise money for the American Committee for Shaare Tzedek, an Orthodox hospital in Jerusalem, eventually becoming a top executive. There, Morris became a philanthropic player. In fund-raising, it’s important to keep the aggression under wraps and show the charm. And Morris believed in his own charm. “I must tell you, I’m likable. People like me,” Morris once said. Wealthy people, too. “He was highly regarded and sought after because he was viewed as someone personally close to major philanthropists around the country, especially in New York,” says a person who knew him at the time.
For Morris, raising money didn’t mean having your hand out. It meant asserting yourself. You needed a cause to believe in, and Morris was a true believer. But then you had to let others know who was in charge. A man offered Morris $100, Morris gave it back. “I don’t know how to do a hundred dollars,” he told a group of fund-raisers. He had some advice for them: Believe you’re a big shot and you will be. “The problem is how you see yourself and how he”—the donor—“sees you. Does he see you as a $100 man or a $25,000 man?”
Morris understood the needs of the wealthy. Many had forsaken their religious duties in the pursuit of wealth. For the cause, Morris didn’t mind exploiting their guilt. The wealthy “need to open up … They want to have a confidant,” Morris explained to the fund-raisers. Morris told the story of one businessman who kept his stores open on the Sabbath, in contravention of God’s laws. The man wondered if tzedakah—charity—would compensate. Rabbi Talansky fudged. “Nobody knows the way things work,” he reassured the man. It was what he wanted to hear. “We became very good friends,” Morris continued. “He used to talk his heart out.” One day Morris went to him with a big request. “The man said, ‘You have it.’ ”
Morris had no shortage of vanity about his good works. Once Olmert ribbed Morris that he was a schnorrer, from the Yiddish word for a beggar. Morris bristled. “I’m a social engineer,” he snapped. As Morris saw it, he shaped events. He put wings on the hospital and raised millions of dollars, $200 million, he said once. People came to him. “Most of my time is [taken up with] people asking me for favors,” Morris once explained. “That’s all I’m doing all day.”
Morris’s charity work strengthened his feelings for Israel. “I was deeply involved in every facet of Israel, except unfortunately not living there,” he says. In 1979, he’d tried. He’d picked up and gone. He thought he had a job waiting for him at Shaare Tzedek. “By the time I got there, there was neither oxygen for patients nor money to pay me,” says Morris.
And so he returned to wander in the Long Island desert, amid the strip malls and the inground sprinklers. “Sojourning,” as he once put it, in one Orthodox community or another. He was far from settled. He felt that in America—even in the greater Five Towns—a Jew is always in some measure on foreign turf. “No matter how integrated you feel you are,” he tells me, “anti-Semitism lurks in very sophisticated places.”
So Morris nurtured a connection with the holy land as best he could. He bought an apartment, a beautiful one overlooking the Knesset, in a religious section of Jerusalem, “the center of Jewish experience,” as he explains to me. And he labored relentlessly for the land promised to God’s chosen people. “It was a good feeling. Even if we don’t live in Israel, we’re pioneering, in a sense, the Jewish State.”
Whenever Morris visited Jerusalem and stopped by Olmert’s office to drop off cash, Olmert gave Morris a hug. “A big hug,” Morris said.
Morris might think of himself as a stranger in a strange suburban land. Still, by the eighties, he’d become a force in the Five Towns. And his good works were a gateway to other, more-worldly ambitions. “He desperately wanted to prove himself by making it big on his own,” says the person who knew him at the time.
Morris worked his way into the business lives of his wealthy friends. “People would invite me to be a participant in their business venture even though many times I didn’t have the minimum [amount] of the investment,” Morris said in a deposition.
By the mid-nineties, Morris was hunting up deals of his own, cross-fertilizing his spiritual and philanthropic connections. “Business opportunities opened up to me,” he says. For years, Morris had led Saturday-night classes in the homes of Great Neck dentists and doctors, religious seekers who needed the guidance of a learned teacher. Morris was a compelling figure, and when a decade ago Great Neck experienced a localized great awakening, when, in a wave, soccer moms turned Orthodox, “Moshe [as they called him] was a big part of that,” says Sandra Levine, one of the soccer moms.
As a businessman, Morris says, he prefers deals based on trust, and so it no doubt seemed natural to return to some of those Great Neck living rooms, this time as a roly-poly investment banker. He encouraged the seekers to get in on his deals: “I’m invested, and you should be” was his usual pitch.
Morris got involved in a motley array of ventures—a satellite company, a business focused on plus-size women. In 2004, Morris was trying to develop a business called Kooltech, based in Far Rockaway, to sell minibars to hotels. Olmert offered to put Morris, “my dear friend,” in touch with Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire hotel owner and, once, a supporter. Though the police pointed to the letter as the quid pro quo for a possible bribe, the deal didn’t quite work out; when Morris called Adelson and told him that the subject was minibars, Adelson hung up.
If Morris’s deals went sour, and more than a few did, he could be a tough customer, by some accounts. He left a trail of lawsuits in his wake, Morris once spent $30,000 on a libel suit that he settled for $60,000. Another time he sued over a few months’ salary he claimed he was owed. Recently he sued the co-founder of the minibar business, who returned the favor by suing Morris.
Sometimes Morris bypassed the courts and chose instead the in-your-face stylings of the tough Bed-Stuy kid. At a wedding, he told a rabbi he was sure had ripped him off, “I’m very angry, and you’re a no-good son of a bitch and a disgrace to the Jews.” Another time, he believed a banker gave him bad advice that he said cost him $300,000. He followed the man up Fifth Avenue screaming and cursing. (A witness claimed Morris also shoved the man, though Morris denies it.) And when a real-estate deal involving some Five Towns rabbis went bad, costing Morris a considerable sum, there were threats mentioned about “blowing up” a car. For Morris, it was an offhand remark tossed off in the heat of the moment. He was simply interested in a settlement. But the rabbis were afraid. Especially when, later, three bulky, hard-looking men showed up at another partner’s house trying to get money back and using the name Morris Talansky. Though it turned out that Morris hadn’t sent them, it raised questions about the company he kept. “There were people who weren’t as nice as me” is all he’ll say.
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.”
When I return to the prime minister’s residence at 10 p.m., Olmert is walking out his previous visitor, the Israeli-born movie producer Arnon Milchan, who runs New Regency in Hollywood. He is an old friend, and the prime minister puts him in an affectionate headlock. Olmert mentions, by way of introduction, that Milchan is the biggest private producer in the world. He’s not; he’s partners with a public company, for one thing. But Olmert is a flatterer. “No one has ever been slapped for overflattering,” he once told an aide.
We sit in the same armchairs as before, though now the office smells of strong cigars—Cubans.
“Would you like one?” Olmert asks, and fetches a cigar from a polished humidor. Soon we are facing each other across a low coffee table, cigars in hand. An assistant brings me an espresso, decaf. Olmert has already had a cappuccino.
It is a congenial moment. And part of Olmert’s problem, I can’t help but think. An exotic cigar, a European coffee. In Israel, there is a culture war, and such details are drawn into the fray.
Of course, Ariel Sharon smoked cigars, too, but Israelis tended to believe that Sharon had earned them. Most Israelis appear to accept that Sharon was corrupt—his son went to jail for campaign-finance fraud. Sharon, though, was a war hero; he raced across the Sinai in 1967 to defeat Egypt’s army, among other feats. (“I didn’t care about corruption,” one Israeli told me. “I wanted Sharon to rescue us.”) Olmert, as is often pointed out, was a mere journalist in the army. And almost as bad, he’d graduated into corporate law.
Comparing the two leaders is unavoidable. Olmert, after all, stepped directly into Sharon’s shoes, and not as the result of a soldierly battle. “Think of how I became prime minister,” Olmert tells me. “I got a phone call that Sharon is unconscious.” Olmert was deputy prime minister at the time. “From then on, I’m prime minister. Had you said that I would be prime minister a week earlier, the answer would have been, ‘Olmert? No chance of it.’ ”
If you read the Israeli press, Olmert tells me, “Olmert wakes up with Talansky and is his closest friend.” The prime minister seems almost insulted by the insinuation.
In Sharon’s case, a cigar was just a cigar. In Olmert’s, it is taken as a sign of snobbishness and indulgence. Olmert is part of a new generation of “post-mythic” Israeli leaders, as one Israeli explains. He’s a bon vivant, worldly, an older version of a yuppie. “I’m not being facetious,” Morris told the court. “Olmert loves expensive cigars. I know he loved pens, watches. I found it strange, but anyway.” Olmert, it seemed, was a man with a weakness for luxury—Morris testified, for instance, that he was called on to foot Olmert’s $4,700 hotel bill at the Ritz-Carlton. (“A lot for two days,” he told the court with a shrug.)
For the Israeli public, Morris’s testimony solidified a perception: Olmert is elitist—“almost effete,” as one critic tells me. For Israelis, he is identified by tastes, if not by address, with Israeli’s ascendant and much-resented entrepreneurial class, the one based in Tel Aviv, the country’s high-tech, secular, nouveau riche boomtown. In Tel Aviv, they no longer want to fight “over stones,” a reference to the boundary disputes in Jerusalem. They prefer to think globally and eat at Nobu, which is soon to arrive nearby.
Tel Aviv is on the same side of the culture war as is Olmert. “Tel Aviv wants to be like Paris,” says Morris, who is on the other. “In Jerusalem, we believe in God. In Tel Aviv, they think they can construct their own reality.” In Jerusalem they talk of the “betrayal of the elites,” and, as one critic complains, “Olmert is indicative of that betrayal.”
Olmert pushes back over an arm of his chair. In private he is more handsome than in public, and more vigorous—he’s a fitness nut, another yuppie flaw. At the moment, he looks perfectly relaxed, even as his political power crumbles. Pragmatic politics has turned against him. He’s lost his base. His steadfast religious supporters, including Morris, abandoned him once he decided that peace with the Palestinians is crucial, even if it means returning land. And then the ambitious in his own party sensed his weakness and revolted. Olmert understands this. He is himself a bruising politician, one who “disdains those intent on proving their purity,” as one friend says.
“What am I going to do to?” he asks me. “Occupy my mind day and night [with charges] or run the country? I have a job, a responsibility, a mission. There is nothing I love more than this country. The only way to prevail during this time is to focus on what I have to do and forget everything else.”
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.
Morris, though, won’t admit to cynical thoughts, even when I cue him. I point out that in court Olmert had tried to destroy Morris’s reputation.
“That was his lawyers. Never, never would he have done this to me. Never, never.”
I’d once suggested to Morris that Olmert believed he was one among many close and helpful receivers of big hugs. “He would never, never have said that,” Morris insists. “Absolutely not.”
“It’s a little sad,” I say. “Your good friend going away so suddenly.”
“Well, I don’t know. Like everybody else, I have nothing to say about it. I wish him peace. Peace of heart, peace of mind, peace of soul. A restful life of some kind.”
It is a bizarrely bland send-off for a man he claims he loved. Morris won’t pull for his friend. Morris had been used, in effect, as a character witness, and couldn’t say that he trusted the character. “I don’t know if he’s guilty,” he says.
I say, “You know that your relationship with Olmert is over now.”
“Not so. Not so,” he insists.
For Morris, Long Island Jew with eternal longings, fund-raiser and businessman who lived by his connections, Olmert was the biggest prize. Olmert completed Morris. Olmert might dismiss the relationship as unimportant; Morris won’t let that stand. In this, I can’t help but think that Morris has won. His version of their relationship will prevail. His and his friend’s name are forever linked now.
Sometimes Morris says he still imagines a meeting with Olmert, as if all that’s needed is to clear the air.
What would he say to Olmert?
“I want to ask him, what’s going on? What’s this all about?”
Additional reporting by Nate Freeman and Amber Sutherland.