With a little help from his friends
No one in Israel's history was ever handed power on a silver platter like Ehud Olmert. Under cover of the grief and shock at Ariel Sharon's sudden departure from the political arena, the acting premier also became head of the party that looks set to win a major victory in the March 28 elections. But who is Ehud Olmert, and who are his friends? How does he do business? What happened in Jerusalem during his tenure as mayor?
It is the year 2000. The mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, is sitting in his office with his feet on the desk and a cigar in his mouth. Also in the room are his eternal bureau chief, Shula Zaken, and a guest. Suddenly the door opens and into the room steps someone who obviously feels at home in the office. Olmert leaps out of his chair and rushes to embrace the man. It is a brotherly embrace. "Who is he?" the guest asks, taken aback by the emotional intensity. "It's Benny Tavin," Zaken tells him in a whisper.
In this period, Benny Tavin should have been the least desirable visitor in Olmert's office. When Olmert was treasurer of the Likud party, Tavin was the man who supplied the movement's donors with fictitious invoices to the tune of a million shekels. That stunt almost cost Olmert his political career. He underwent a prolonged and expensive trial and was exonerated only after the judge was persuaded that he had not known about the fraudulent behavior of Tavin and the others on the treasurer's staff. Tavin was sentenced to eight months in prison and fined. Olmert might have been expected to be furious at people like Tavin, who embroiled him in the affair, and to keep his distance from them. Instead, he embraced Tavin.
According to the polls, on March 28 Israel will elect, of its own free will and deliberate choice, a very forgiving politician as its leader. In the course of his political career, Olmert has interceded on behalf of convicted criminals more than once. When Likud activist Shlomi Oz was convicted of counterfeiting dollars, Olmert sent written character testimony on his behalf. When Yehoshua Halperin, the CEO of the Bank of North America, was slapped with an injunction forbidding him to leave the country, Olmert tried to get the injunction revoked. After businessman Shlomo Eisenberg was convicted of fraud, Olmert sent the judges a letter describing the convicted man's contribution to the economy of Jerusalem and requesting that they take this into consideration. Olmert attended the mass rally outside the prison on the day former Shas chairman Aryeh Deri arrived there to begin serving his prison term. He also defended Omri Sharon, the prime minister's son, on the eve of his conviction.
Ehud Olmert is 60 years old. He has been in public life for nearly 40 years and has been a Knesset member, with short breaks, since 1974. The 40 years of Olmert's political molding have in large measure also been the 40 years in which Israel's culture of government was shaped. It is a period that began with the twilight of the rule of Mapai, the forerunner of Labor, and ended just recently with the "big bang." In between, the Likud was in power most of the time. The state and Olmert did a lot of growing up in that time frame. Olmert also became rich. He entered the Knesset at the age of 29 as a rough and ready politico who made a name for himself as a crusader against corruption and organized crime. He has come a long way since the day he held up a sheaf of papers on the Knesset podium and declared that the police had evidence that the housing minister, Avraham Ofer, was implicated in bribery. In November 2005, he told the audience at a business conference, "If people say the government is corrupt, that applies to you, too."
Half-time MK Olmert was born in the community of Nahalat Jabotinsky, next to Binyamina, in September 1945. From infancy he imbibed politics. His father, Mordechai Olmert, was a member of the Third and Fourth Knessets for the Herut party, the forerunner of the Likud. In 1965 his father left Herut and four years later joined the Free Center, founded by attorney Shmuel Tamir. Ehud Olmert's political debut came in 1966, when he was 21. He asked for the floor at the Herut Convention and demanded the immediate resignation of Menachem Begin as the party's leader due to his failure to oust Mapai in six consecutive election campaigns since the founding of the country. Convention delegates started to close in on Olmert in order to beat some sense into him, but Begin defended him chivalrously. "As long as he comes to me with open demands and does not conspire against me," said the man who would become Israel's sixth prime minister, in 1977, "that is a legitimate motion."
In 1967, a month after the Six-Day War, Herut split and Tamir established the Free Center. The new party won four seats in the 1969 elections. Akiva Nof, the secretary of the Knesset faction, went abroad for studies and suggested to Tamir that Olmert replace him. Olmert became the party's secretary and spokesman. It was around this time that he met the journalist Dan Margalit, who would become his close friend. Olmert became Tamir's right-hand man and clerked in his law office. He aided Tamir in investigating various corruption scandals, which were later reported in the press. Among other bodies, corruption was investigated in Autocars, a Haifa-based automobile assembly plant, and in the national water company, Mekorot.
In 1973 Olmert and MK Eliezer Shostak left the Free Center and established the Independent Center. Tamir told confidants that this was "a stab in the back." His son, Yosef Tamir, is now No. 42 on the Kadima list of Knesset candidates. Akiva Nof remembers a conversation with Olmert not long before the split. "Ehud and I were driving through the streets of Tel Aviv in my car and between one stoplight and the next, Ehud told me, 'You'll see, Akiva, in another 30-35 years, all that will separate me from the Prime Minister's Office will probably be Dan Meridor.'" referring to the former MK and minister.
A shining warrior In the December 1973 elections, Olmert was voted into the Knesset as a representative of the Independent Center, which had become a faction in the Likud. His activity in exposing corruption, which had begun at the initiative of MK Shmuel Tamir, earned him favorable headlines. Immediately upon entering the Knesset, he was involved in exposing a series of corruption episodes in professional soccer, in cooperation with a new Labor Party MK named Yossi Sarid, who this year retired from politics. Sarid: "We brought a lot of joy and vitality to the petrified Knesset of the mid-1970s. At the same time, I entered the Knesset then and left it now with the same shirt and the same NIS 60 wristwatch. Not so Olmert, who from the outset was able to exploit his status in the Knesset as an attorney and from the outset did not a little for himself and for his business affairs."
MK Olmert's image was of a shining warrior doing battle against organized crime. He even asked the Knesset for personal security against criminals who were threatening his life. On December 28, 1976, MK Olmert stated from the Knesset podium, "I have received information that the Israel Police believe they have sufficient material to launch a criminal investigation against housing minister Avraham Ofer." Less than a week later, Ofer shot himself in his car on a Tel Aviv beach. After his suicide the investigation was shelved. His son, attorney Dan Ofer, in his first public response since then: "I accuse Ehud Olmert. In the days preceding the suicide of my father, of blessed memory, Olmert used cheap demagoguery in the Knesset and did a character assassination of my father, an act of McCarthyism. He sought cheap publicity at the expense of my father's blood."
At the time, an MK was allowed to own a private business, and Olmert took good advantage of this. He was both an MK and a media star as a fighter against corruption, and a private lawyer representing economic interests. In 1977 he and two other attorneys, Uri Messer and Baruch Adler, left the law office of Jerusalem attorney Uzi Atzmon. The secretary, Shula Zaken, went with them. The Ehud Olmert and Co. law office was launched. From that day to this, Uri Messer and Shula Zaken have been the two central figures in Olmert's business and political life. In December 1988, when he received his first cabinet appointment, as minister without portfolio, Olmert left the law practice he had established.
Aryeh Avneri, a former senior correspondent for the daily Yedioth Ahronoth and now chairman of Ometz, an association that combats public corruption, has been following Olmert's political career for years with mounting frustration. "I wanted to understand how he managed to become rich in the course of his political activity," Avneri says. "Olmert used to receive clients while he was an MK. People who wanted shortcuts to various state authorities and bodies hired his expensive services, because of his access to Knesset committees and decision makers who dealt with the subjects they were interested in."
It is important to note here that Olmert's activities in this period were permitted by law. Until 1996, MKs were permitted to hold other jobs in addition to their tenure in the parliament, subject to several restrictions (since 1989, for example, work that poses a conflict of interest has been prohibited and income from other work cannot exceed half the person's income as an MK). It took the legislature a long time to completely bar elected representatives from receiving a salary from private bodies they encountered, or were liable to encounter, within the framework of their public position.
One of the biggest deals that Olmert brokered while serving as an MK was the sale of the Israel Land Development Corporation (Hahsharat Hayishuv), a vast holding company worth tens of millions of shekels, to businessman Jacob Nimrodi. It was only after the sale that it turned out that the corporation had been sold to Nimrodi for next to nothing, given the true value of its hidden assets. In an interview Olmert gave to Haaretz correspondent Gideon Alon in October 1987, after the sale, he chose to emphasize the "Zionist character" of the transaction and not the economic aspect. When he was asked why the investors (the Nimrodi family) had solicited his services, he replied, "I assume he came to me the way clients come to lawyers."
Asked whether his activity as a lawyer was not coming at the expense of the time his voters expected him to devote to parliamentary activity, he said, "I generally don't hear complaints that I'm not doing my public jobs properly ... I very much support the involvement of MKs and public figures in matters that are outside political life. In my opinion this is an enriching, diversified and fruitful experience when one has to make decisions without being cut off [from events]."
Olmert's office, this week: "The acting prime minister left the law office in December 1988. The acting prime minister neither has nor ever had common assets with attorney Baruch Adler or attorney Messer since their partnership ceased in 1988."
The affair of the fictitious invoices Since the beginning of the 1980s, it is doubtful whether any elected representative - with the possible exception of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - has been entangled and investigated in so many affairs. So far, Olmert has eluded conviction in all of them.
In 1981 Olmert received a loan of $50,000 from a fictitious company owned by Yehoshua Halperin, the head of the Bank of North America. The bank's money was transferred to the company by order of Halperin. The loan to Olmert was not discovered until four years later, during the police investigation of Halperin, which was launched when the bank crashed with a deafening roar. In his testimony, corruption fighter Olmert confirmed that he had interceded on his behalf "as a friend" and tried to persuade the head of the fraud investigations unit, police Brigadier General Yoram Gonen, to soften the injunction barring Halperin from going abroad. When asked whether Halperin had asked him to return the money he borrowed, Olmert said, "He never picked up the phone and said, 'Ehud, you took a loan, why don't you pay it back?' Or 'You should pay it back,' or 'The due date for the loan is ...' or anything like that. No." The attorney general at the time, Yosef Harish, decided not to place Olmert on trial.
In April 1989, the affair of the "fictitious invoices" exploded. That affair, which some years later led to Olmert's indictment and trial, tarnished his reputation but ended in his acquittal. It turned out that the Likud moneymen had an original method for raising money. They asked businessmen for donations and in return promised them invoices from advertising firms for services they never received. The donors thus enjoyed the best of both worlds: they bought influence in the Likud and they also received an invoice that could be used as a tax deduction. Dozens of indictments were filed in the wake of the fraud - against the staff of the Likud treasurer's unit, against the fund-raisers, against the companies that supplied the fictitious invoices and against the donors themselves, who were accomplices to the fraud. Some of the owners of the corporations that were involved were able to escape indictment by paying a fine. The best known of them is Yuli Ofer, who paid a fine of NIS 750,000.
However, the main trial took place against Mordechai Yahel, the former accountant of the Likud faction; against his superior, Menahem Atzmon, who was the Likud treasurer; and against Yona Peled, a fund-raiser. They were indicted in Tel Aviv District Court in 1991. Olmert, who was also Likud treasurer in association with Atzmon, was initially not placed on trial, at the decision of the state prosecutor at the time, Dorit Beinisch (now the deputy president of the Supreme Court). A public association, Amitai, petitioned the High Court of Justice against the decision and the State Prosecutor's Office informed the court that it would reconsider placing Olmert on trial at the conclusion of the trial of the other defendants.
The three senior Likud officials were convicted in March 1996, and that September the new attorney general, Michael Ben Yair, decided to indict Olmert on two counts: first, that in August 1988 he had entered into a criminal conspiracy with other money people from the Likud to collect donations from corporations in contravention of the Party Financing Law, by providing fictitious advertising services; and second, that in the first half of 1989 Olmert had signed a declaration for the state comptroller according to which the Likud books from the period of the elections - which were turned over to the comptroller under the law - reflected, to the best of his knowledge, all the Likud?s revenues and expenditures. The accused, the charge sheet stated, knowingly signed a false statement.
Olmert's trial was held in the courtroom of Judge Oded Mudrik. In his court testimony Olmert stated that in the 1988 election campaign he was not responsible for fund-raising for the Likud in Israel, but only abroad. "There was a situation here in which it was clear that there was a structure and division of responsibility in roles. I am not willing to take responsibility for anything I did not deal with," he stated. He said he had been very busy during this period and had not found time to manage the Likud's financial affairs. "I do not think I ever had a year like that in my life. It was insane. During those months I had to appear in three or four different places every evening." Olmert said he had fulfilled his duty as treasurer by choosing the right people to handle the party's financial affairs. "I trusted them completely," he said. The trial ended in September 1997 with Olmert's acquittal. At the same time, Judge Mudrik had a few harsh things to say about Olmert. In regard to the second count of the indictment, the judge wrote, in part, "This manner of signing is quite outrageous. First of all, it reflects an attitude that is not serious toward the institution of the State Comptroller and toward the public responsibility of the signatory ... However, I must examine the issue in terms of criminal responsibility ... and in this context, although the manner of signing creates a harsh impression, it cannot be said that it was done in awareness of the falsity that underlies the declaration."
During the investigation, the police came up with another suspicion: that a private trip abroad by Olmert's wife and daughter had been paid for with Likud funds. This time the file was closed due to insufficient evidence. When asked by the police whether he knew that Aliza and Michal Olmert [his wife and daughter, respectively] had flown to New York using money that had been donated to the Likud's 1988 election campaign, Olmert replied, "I'm flabbergasted at the question. I never dealt with the technical side of paying for trips. That is always done by my assistant, Shula Zaken." Attorney General Ben Yair summed up, "It was found that there is no evidence and therefore it was decided not to submit an indictment." Tougher bosses than Olmert might have fired a secretary who made such a major mistake and entangled her employer in criminal suspicions. Olmert, ever loyal, has retained her to this day as his close trusted aide.
Loss of memory One of the last opportunities to see Olmert on the witness stand was in a trial that did not make headlines, in the District Labor Court. He was summoned to testify by Yisrael Twito, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who helped Olmert in his 1993 run for mayor of Jerusalem. Twito sued the municipality after his retirement as a city employee at the end of the 1990s, claiming he was still owed money. In his suit, which was filed by attorney Yossi Arnon, Twito claimed that Olmert had promised him a job in the municipality after the elections, but that he was sometimes paid only an advance on his salary and sometimes nothing at all.
According to the 1994-1995 report submitted by municipal controller Uri Sivan, Twito's employment "was against the law ... and in total contravention of the municipality's procedures for hiring employees." The report added, "The mayor is responsible for hiring the employee against the law and for the amounts of money that he was paid, and bears personal responsibility toward the municipality to return the money."
This is the first publication of Olmert's testimony, which was given in February 2003. This marginal affair would hardly be worth mentioning were it not for the evasions and temporary loss of memory shown by the acting prime minister.
Attorney Arnon: Was the claimant your aide, your worker ... before the 1993 elections?
Olmert: "There was no connection between us before the elections."
Was the claimant one of your aides in the election campaign?
"In my election campaign, there were more than 150 people."
Was he promised a job in the municipality afterward?
Are you aware that after the elections he first worked for your deputy, Yigal Amedi? "I don't remember."
The fact that he worked for Mr. Amedi is agreed in this court.
"I have no idea what is agreed in this court. Offhand, I say it is sheer nonsense ... I am not versed in the details of what is agreed or not agreed ... I personally do not remember. He was not deputy mayor, he could not have employed someone. I don't remember."
Despite the fact that he was one of 150 activists, did you congratulate him for his work at your victory party?
"I don't remember. I can only say that I made sure to thank dozens of people. It is possible that I mentioned his name among them."
Do you recall the quarrel with the workers committee about attempts to bring the claimant into the municipality?
"I don't remember ... I do not remember grounds for a dispute of which the complainant was the subject."
The 1995 report [of the municipal controller] refers to political appointments ... The date of this agreement is November 2, 1993, retroactively.
"I certainly did not deal with any private case concerning the salary of an employee ..."
Do you recall a promise that you made concerning Yisrael [Twito] to someone?
"That is totally unfounded. That is part of the complainant's imagination ... No commitment was ever made."
At this point attorney Arnon showed Olmert the municipal controller's report, which mentions the discussion that was held in Olmert's office about Twito.
Do you remember this event at which you ordered his appointment?
"I do not deny what is stated here. But I do not remember. It was 10 years ago."
In the cross-examination, Olmert was asked whether it is true that the claimant told him he would receive the same salary as a Knesset member.
"That's not serious. That never happened. The claimant is a person who has a tendency to hallucinate. I'm not just saying this, I'm saying it as an allegation."
There is another allegation, that you appointed him as your representative in the sanitation department? "That is totally unfounded."
Attorney Arnon later asked Olmert how he knew the claimant had a vivid imagination if he is only one of many employees in the municipality. Olmert's reply: "You asked me about the period in which he worked on the campaign staff. He later worked in the municipality and one of the reasons that he is better known to me than others is because he was problematic. The problematic people are usually known."
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