American Businessman Says He Gave Cash-Stuffed Envelopes to Israeli Premier

American Businessman Says He Gave Cash-Stuffed Envelopes to Israeli Premier
Mohammed Mar’i, Arab News

RAMALLAH, West Bank, 28 May 2008 — Jewish-American businessman Morris Talansky, in a testimony to the Jerusalem District Court’s three-judge panel yesterday, confirmed having handed envelopes stuffed with cash to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but said he never expected anything in return.

In a sometimes emotional testimony, Talansky told the court that he turned over about $150,000 to Olmert, directly and through political aides, at meetings in New York and Jerusalem over a 15-year period. He said he believed most of the money was for political campaigns, but that Olmert also sought money for vacations and unidentified personal expenses.

Talansky, 75, said there were no records of how the money was spent. “I only know that he loved expensive cigars. I know he loved pens, watches. I found it strange,” he said.

Police believe Olmert illicitly took up to $500,000 from Talansky in illegal campaign contributions or bribes before becoming prime minister. Olmert has said the funds were legal campaign contributions and has promised to step down if indicted. Talansky said in court he never received anything in return for the money.

Yesterday’s revelations were likely to further hurt the already unpopular Olmert, who is trying to rally public support for peace efforts with the Palestinians and Syria.

The investigation is the fifth that police have launched into Olmert’s affairs since he took office in 2006, and there is widespread speculation that he might not weather the latest charges.

Legal affairs analyst Moshe Negbi said that, according to Talansky’s testimony, Olmert could face charges of bribery and breach of trust. He suggested Olmert could be forced to resign by the attorney general even before any indictment.

“I don’t think that there were ever such grave suspicions against a prime minister in Israel,” Negbi said.

Olmert’s downfall could dash US-backed efforts by Israel and the Palestinians to work out a final peace agreement by the end of the year.

During the questioning, Talansky said much of the money was raised in New York “parlor meetings,” where Olmert would address American donors who would then leave contributions on their chairs. Some of the payments were meant to be loans, but not all were repaid, Talansky said.

The donations took place before and during Olmert’s 10-year tenure as Jerusalem mayor, which ended in 2003, and his subsequent term as trade minister. Olmert became prime minister in early 2006.

Throughout the period in question, Olmert was a leading politician in the hard-line Likud Party. Among the donations was $30,000 for Olmert’s failed 2002 campaign for Likud chairman. He said the money was delivered in four checks in the names of Talansky, his wife, son and brother to skirt limits on contributions.

“I recall him telling me, you could only give him a maximum amount per person,” Talansky said.

In late 2005, Olmert bolted the Likud to help form the centrist Kadima Party, which he now leads.

Talansky described Olmert as a politician with magnetic appeal who always greeted him with a big hug each time they met in Jerusalem. “I had a very close relationship with him, but I wish to add at this time that the relationship of 15 years was purely of admiration,” he added.

The last payment, Talansky said, was about $72,500 for Olmert’s Likud primary campaign in 2003. He said he has only seen Olmert once at a social function since Olmert became prime minister.

Since Olmert has not been indicted, yesterday’s testimony was not part of a formal court proceeding against him.

Instead, the court was taking Talansky’s testimony because he resides in the US and authorities are concerned he might not return to Israel to testify in the future.

Olmert’s lawyers tried to delay Talansky’s testimony. But the American businessman wanted to testify so he could return home to Long Island, New York.

Olmert lawyer Eli Zohar labeled Talansky’s testimony “twisted” and said the truth would be revealed in his cross-examination set for July 17. After the hearing, State Attorney Moshe Lador said it was too early to make decisions.

— With input from agencies

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