Israel Must Stop Tolerating Corruption

Olmert's conviction shows that even a prime minister isn’t above the law, and will, under certain circumstances, pay for his corrupt behavior. But this isn’t enough.

Olmert
Israel's Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Reuters / File photo

The most complex corruption case ever brought to an Israeli court is ending with the bitter taste that justice has not been done to the fullest with senior elected officials, even though they have been branded with the stigma of flagrant wrongdoing.

The Supreme Court’s verdict, handed down on Tuesday on appeals against Judge David Rozen’s conviction and sentencing of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and others, represents a retreat by the legal system into a skeptical approach and sends a public message of extreme leniency toward crimes of government corruption.

Granted, Olmert cannot celebrate a complete acquittal; the Supreme Court’s verdict upheld one of the two counts of bribery on which the district court convicted him. Moreover, his expected incarceration in about another six weeks, to serve an 18-month sentence, in and of itself constitutes a milestone in Israel’s legal and political history. It says that even a prime minister isn’t above the law, and even he can expect, under certain circumstances, to pay for his corrupt and illegal behavior.

But this isn’t enough. The ongoing battle against government corruption needs a tailwind, especially at a time when it seems as if the political system is gradually taking control of key positions in law enforcement.

In the past, courts often cast doubt on defendants’ criminal intent when they were high-ranking politicians. Olmert himself had already escaped the grasp of the law once before, in a case involving Likud party accounts, because of the court’s unwillingness to ascribe criminal intent to him. This time, too, the Supreme Court justices decided to acquit Olmert of one charge after concluding that it hadn’t been proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew of the transfer of hundreds of thousands of shekels to his brother, Yossi Olmert, by the state’s key witness, Shmuel Dechner.

The message that the public will receive from this case, known as the Holyland affair, is liable to be influenced by the bottom line, assisted by Olmert’s spin machine, which Tuesday resumed operating in high gear. This message is likely to be that the court tends to be more skeptical about convicting elected officials charged with corruption when faced with a web of circumstantial evidence. It has thereby fallen into line with the prosecution, which closes cases against politicians due to insufficient evidence. The short prison sentence Olmert is expected to serve also regrettably leads to the conclusion that the price one pays for bribery isn’t as high as it once seemed.

This is another reason why President Reuven Rivlin and the Justice Ministry must reject any effort to secure a pardon for Olmert. The principle of equality before the law has already been dealt a harsh blow. There is no need to exacerbate it.