“Our long national nightmare is finally over.” Those were the words spoken by Gerald Ford as he took office following Richard Nixon’s resignation, almost forty years ago. He was, of course, referring to the more than two years of hell that Americans endured during the entire Watergate scandal. I suppose Israelis may be thinking the same thing about Ehud Olmert finally being convicted of something.
Olmert, unlike Nixon, was not charged with any crimes committed during his brief tenure as Prime Minister of Israel from 2006 – 2009. The charges stemmed from his illicit activities when he served as mayor of Jerusalem from 1994 – 2003 and as cabinet minister under Ariel Sharon from 2003-2005.
It should be remembered that Ehud Olmert was only an accidental prime Minister. First he managed to kiss and make up with Ariel Sharon with whom he had previously had a falling out. In 2003, while serving in his last year as mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert ran again for the Knesset. He was not popular in the Likud Party and ended up getting a very low spot on the Likud Knesset list. Only the Likud’s surprise success of 38 seats that year got Olmert back into the Knesset. Olmert would have to decide if he should take his seat since that would mean resigning as mayor. The law prohibited a sitting mayor from also serving in the Knesset. (This was a recent law; previously, serving mayors had also held Knesset seats.)
Ariel Sharon, for whatever reason, wanted Olmert at his side. So Sharon coaxed Olmert into giving up his last year as mayor by making him a senior cabinet minister and first deputy prime minister. When Sharon formed the Kadima Party in 2005, Olmert went with him. At the end of that year and only a few months before the upcoming elections, Sharon had a second stroke which left him in a coma until his death eight years later.
Olmert was lucky. As first deputy prime minister he immediately became the acting prime minister. Under Israeli law, after three months Olmert formally became the prime minister. The Kadima Party’s leaders did not want to rock the boat so close to the lections so they kept Olmert on as their leader; even though, many in the party’s leadership did not like him.
When Ariel Sharon was the leader the Kadima Party it was expected to gain more than forty seats (more than a third of the total) in the Knesset elections in 2006. Olmert led it to all of twenty nine seats. This was in spite of the fact that both of Israel’s traditional ruling Parties, Labor and Likud, fell to lows receiving only nineteen and twelve seats respectively.
As unpopular as Ehud Olmert was at the end of his term – his party had to call for early elections after only three years – Israel was only spared his seeking reelection by the fact that Olmert was under criminal investigation and expected to be indicted at the end of 2008. As a result, he stepped down as leader of the Kadima Party and announced that he would not seek reelection. Fortunately, for Olmert, he decided to hang on to the premiership for another few months until the new elections. This was not so fortunate for his successor as leader of the Kadima, Party Tzipi Livni.
So what exactly did Olmert do? Well this is a man who has been accused of one thing or another for the last twenty five years. For example, he was said to have bought a valuable Jerusalem home at well under market price from certain businessmen.
Ehud Olmert was accused of receiving illegal campaign contributions both when he ran for mayor of Jerusalem in 1993 and when he ran for the Likud Party leadership in 1999. He was also accused of not needing to repay certain “loans” that he received from wealthy businessmen.
Ehud Olmert was indicted and tried for taking bribes. Specifically, it was proven that he received multiple cash payments from an American businessman named Morris Talansky. Talansky just happened to have business interests in Israel. Olmert’s defense was that there was nothing wrong with an elected official receiving cash “gifts” in envelopes from a “friend” who just so happened to have benefited from decisions made by that elected official while in office.
Believe it or not, the judge bought Olmert’s argument. (There are no jury trials in Israel. Judges preside over the cases and make the verdicts.) In July 2012, Olmert was acquitted of all of the major charges and convicted only of “breach of the public’s trust.” Breach of trust is a crime here in Israel whereby a government official has been proven to have done something which in someway violated his oath of office. Olmert received only a light suspended sentence for that offense.
So the judge acknowledged that Olmert received cash payments form people like Talansky. He also acknowledged that these people benefitted in some way from Olmert’s actions while in office. But the judge ruled that the prosecution failed to prove any quid pro quo in these actions. He only saw a quid but no pro or maybe it was a pro without a quid. Every intelligent and sane person felt that it was more a matter of that old saying, “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…”
I guess there were about 7 million Israelis when Olmert was acquitted. About 6,995,000 of us were incredulous with and infuriated by his acquittal. The remainder was composed of Olmert’s friends, family and people who stood to gain by his possible return to politics.
Believe it or not, Olmert did not count his blessings and just keep on spending the money that he got in those envelopes. Instead, Ehud Olmert acted like a defamed, slandered, victim who should never have been forced to step down from office.
The Attorney General vowed to appeal, both the verdict and the light sentence. (Due to the fact that there are no jury trials in Israel there is no double jeopardy and prosecutors may appeal judges’ verdicts as well as their rulings.) But few in the country believed that he had a strong case for an appeal.
Believe it or not, there was actually talk of Olmert’s running again for the Knesset in the last elections in 2013. He was said to be considering either seeking the leadership of the Kadima Party again or starting a new party. Fortunately, that never happened.
But Olmert’s travails were not yet over. Six months before the acquittal, he was indicted on other charges relating to Jerusalem’s Holyland neighborhood building development.
If you have been in Jerusalem at all in the past ten years then you could not have avoided seeing the monstrosity that was built on top of the hill in that neighborhood. A group of five interconnecting apartment towers with a thirty story tower next to them command the whole city now. They are an eyesore. You can see them from just about everywhere. I’m sure that the very wealthy people who bought apartments on the higher floors greatly enjoy their spectacular vistas. At least, when inside their homes, they do not have to see their own awful buildings.
Believe it or not, the original plan called for a second set of towers to be built along side the first in a mirror image of them. Only the scandal that erupted around them stopped further building on the site. The accusation was that Olmert, his successor as mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lupolianski, and others received bribes in exchange for authorizing the project. If you look around the rest of Jerusalem today and see all of the eyesores and apartments that have been built for wealthy non-residents, you cannot help but wonder what other projects resulted only due to this corruption.
The media speculated that it would be more difficult for the State to get a conviction in what has become known as the “Hoyland Affair.” The prosecution, it was said, had a much stronger case in the previous trial. If it could not get a conviction then, then how could it get one now. Also, we were told that the State’s key witness was not trustworthy and was shown by the defense to have lied on many points.
Cameras are only allowed in the courtroom before the judge enters. We get to see footage on the evening news of the defendants in various cases sitting in the courtroom before the proceedings begin. But, we are spared a farce like the O.J. trial in America and speculation by so called experts day in and day out as to what they believe is happening based on footage of the trial.
The verdict was scheduled for this past Monday. In America the verdict is read a soon as the jury is in. Here the judge schedules a date for the reading of his verdict in advance. He then manages to keep his decision a secret.
Over last weekend Israelis were hit over the head with the revelation that Olmert’s closest aid, confidant and co-defendant, Shula Zaken, had decided to turn on him. She had, for whatever reason, after so many years chosen to testify against her friend. Zaken had also recorded telephone conversations with Ehud Olmert in which he urged her not to testify and offered her compensation not to do so. This would not only assure Olmert’s conviction, but also leave him open to further charges of obstruction of justice and bribing a witness.
The prosecution asked the judge to delay sentencing so that Zaken could be called to testify. The defense, of course objected.
But wait, if you have seen every episode of Law and Order as I have then don’t you know that the prosecution cannot present new evidence after it closed its case. It can in rebuttal to something that the defense raised in its case, but not after the trial has formally ended and they are awaiting a verdict. But again, we have no juries here and the rules are different in Israel.
The judge announced on Sunday that he would not delay his verdict and would issue one on Monday as planned. The media immediately speculated that this meant that the judge would not only decline to hear Zaken’s testimony, but that another acquittal for Olmert was immanent. Boy were they wrong!
On Monday morning the people of Israel were shocked, relieved and pleased to hear that Olmert and eight others, including Lupolianski, had been convicted. The judge went ahead with the verdict as scheduled because he did not need to hear Zaken’s testimony to convict.
The judge did not just convict Olmert, he vilified him. In his reading of the verdict the judge called Olmert a liar and said that he did not believe any of Olmert’s testimony. The judge also criticized the State for offering a plea bargain to Zaken at the last minute with a light sentence of only eleven months.
This immediately led to speculation that the judge would not honor Zaken’s deal and give her a harsher sentence. It also led to everyone in the country expecting a very harsh sentence for Olmert. He and his cohorts are to be sentenced at the end of May.
The defense is of course expected to appeal. The general feeling is that due to the judge’s harsh comments they do not have a very good chance of succeeding. Also, if Olmert is finally sent to jail the State will probably drop its appeal on the other charges.
Usually when a public figure is prosecuted for any reason in this country he claims that it is only because of some sort of prejudice.
“It’s only because I’m Sephardic!”
“It’s only because I’m religious!”
“It’s only because I’m a right wing politician!”
“It’s only because the establishment had to bring me down because of my reformist policies!”
In this case, Olmert could not make any such claims. He is secular and Ashkenazi. His co-defendants varied in ethnicity, religious practice, political affiliation and gender.
It is still possible that there might be deal whereby the State agrees to drop its appeal on the other charges and offers a lighter sentence to Olmert in exchange for Olmert’s agreeing not to appeal his sentence. Let’s hope not. For now I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the judge will throw the book at Olmert.
Speaking for many of us here in Israel, I’m sick and tired of the cronyism in Israeli politics. It’s like Nineteenth Century America here where everyone is a Boss Tweed. Politicians, religious and secular, right and left alike all think that being in office gives them a mandate to get rich.
Maybe the Chinese have the right idea. They execute public officials convicted of corruption.