Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced Tuesday to six years of imprisonment in the Tel Aviv District Court and, naturally, most of the public attention in Israel and abroad has been focused on him. But he wasn't standing there on his own. A former deputy of his at Jerusalem's city hall, another senior municipal official, well-connected businessmen including the former chairman of Israel's largest bank were all handed prison sentences as well. Olmert's successor as Jerusalem mayor, Uri Lupolianski has also been found guilty of accepting a bribe in the Holyland case, his sentencing deferred due to ill health.
This morning in court, It seemed, for a moment, that an entire ruling class – politicians, bureaucrats, the financial elite, fixers and go-betweens – were all standing there in the dock. Judge David Rozen is already being criticized in some circles for his sweeping opening statement. Before he began doling out the sentences he said that "a public servant who accepts bribes is akin to a traitor." But he wasn't talking only to the defendants standing before him. He was addressing the whole political class.
It could be argued that the nature of the evidence heard in Rozen's courtroom did not amount to a clear-cut conclusion that Olmert and his colleagues had knowingly taken bribes in return for authorizing planning for the monstrous Holyland project and other building plans. The defendants' lawyers will certainly make that argument when they appeal to the Supreme Court. It is not hard to imagine another judge delivering an acquittal, just as happened in Olmert's two previous corruption cases. In one of them, still the in the process of an appeal, he was convicted only of the lesser charge of breach of trust. It would have been just as likely if the entire case had never made it to court – due to police investigators deciding it wasn't worth the bother or the attorney general preferring not to indict on the grounds that a conviction would be unlikely.
But Rozen thought otherwise, ruling that the evidence, though circumstantial, indicated a clear pattern of bribery and endemic corruption on the sixth floor at Safra Square (Jerusalem's city hall). And while branding Olmert and Co. as traitors, he nevertheless detailed their impressive public careers and contributions to society, before condemning them to years in jail. Treason and betrayal are carried out by the most valued members of society, who abuse their positions of trust.
In the past two decades, four former ministers have been sent to prison. Aryeh Deri and Shlomo Benizri were convicted of taking bribes; Avraham Hirschson of embezzlement and Moshe Katzav, who was serving as president when the investigation against him began, was sent to jail for rape. And yet, despite the pictures of a president waking into prison, it seemed to many that they and other senior officials had gone down due to some lack of sophistication on their part. There remained a sense that the most inner charmed circle still enjoyed immunity, insulated by their lawyers and PR advisors.
Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak all came under police investigation looking into political and personal corruption but the attorney general, in those cases, preferred not to press charges. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was investigated for over a decade over allegations of money-laundering but once again, despite the professional opinion of the police and state prosecutors, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein closed the case. And when he finally did indict Lieberman on a charge of fraudulently appointing an ambassador who had leaked him confidential information, the court threw it out. President Ezer Weizman was forced to leave office for accepting an illegal gift of money but avoided indictment.
Until Judge Rozen's coruscating guilty verdict six weeks ago, Olmert was still confidently telling his large group of friends and admirers that he would be back, challenging for prime minister in the next elections. A number of veteran commentators and pundits seriously believed he could be a credible contender. After all, if Netanyahu, Sharon, Lieberman and Barak had all survived their legal travails and gone back to office, why not the most talented and urbane man to ever occupy the prime minister's office? He was surrounded by the cream of the legal profession and the captains of finance and industry who all urged him onward and upward, despite the indictments and evidence. Until David Rozen brought it all crashing down. And even now, some of Olmert's supporters continue to insist on his innocence.
Is Israel now proven to be a particularly corrupt society? It's impossible to measure. The verdicts could prove the case either way – the most powerful men in the land have been convicted as rapists and bribe-takers. But on the other hand, how often if ever has a legal system sent a president and prime minister to jail without a bloody coup?
What cannot be argued is that the members of that charmed circle felt for a very long time they were indeed immune.
Things are starting to change. The police have reopened the previous case against Olmert, pursuing new evidence. Weinstein is suddenly much more eager to press ahead with the investigation against the former IDF chief of staff and once-popular general Gabi Ashkenazi, who allegedly abused his office in pursuit of his ambitions. Shlomi Lahiani, the charismatic mayor of Holon, who aspired to national leadership, last week accepted a plea bargain, effectively ending his promising political career. He realized that in the new atmosphere, his chances of evading bribery charges in court were no longer worth taking.
Corruption will continue to happen, to one degree or another, wherever money and politics mingle. But Rozen has expressed a wider public understanding that bribe-taking is a betrayal of Israeli society in the deepest sense, and through his sentencing of Ehud Olmert, broadcasted that the age of immunity is over.
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