Olmert Should Have Been Convicted 3 Years Ago

When the Jerusalem judges first ruled on the so-called cash envelopes case, they did not understand the character or soul of the politician involved.

Emil Salman

Seven years, three election campaigns and three Netanyahu victories have transpired since Ehud Olmert was forced to resign as Israel's prime minister. His resignation occurred under the shadow of preliminary testimony by American businessman Moshe Talansky, revealing how he furnished the then-admired politician with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash over the years.

Three years passed since the Jerusalem District Court judges initially acquitted Olmert of aggravated fraud and breach of trust. The arguments behind the acquittal left even some of Olmert’s fervent supporters shocked.

There was no real reason for there to be a retrial, for former Olmert aide Shula Zaken to make an about-face, or for her to provide explosive recordings to the court in order for its judges to reach the conclusion they came to on Monday.

It’s a shame that at the time, three years ago, they wrapped Olmert in the delusion of an acquittal and the public in a gloomy feeling that the country's courts sometimes differentiate between those who are equal and those who are "more equal."

Right after the previous ruling, in which hints of the judges' opinion of the over-arching narrative here – concerning the unjustified removal of a person from the country's most important position – poked out between the lines, it was clear the case would reach the Supreme Court.

All the foundations for conviction were laid out before the Jerusalem judges in the first round: Hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash were hidden in the safe of a lawyer-friend, who panicked about its possible discovery. 

Talansky testified that he had indeed given some $150,000 in cash to Olmert  to fund political campaigns and, he hinted, to underwrite the PM's stays at fine hotels, expensive cigars and so on. Olmert admitted taking money, but said it was legal donations to fund his campaigns for re-election as mayor of Jerusalem and for leadership of the Likud party.

It is no coincidence that one of the judges in the retrial, Rivka Friedman-Feldman, ruled Monday that her colleagues (she herself only joined the district court panel at this later stage) had enough evidence to convict Olmert the first time around

“An examination of every deed, of every event by itself, could lead to the conclusion that the acts do not constitute a criminal offense,” the judge wrote. “However, a look from on high, encompassing all the deeds in their entirety, bears witness to the receipt of money over many years – some of it ‘kosher’ and some of it ‘forbidden’ – when in parallel, during that same period, Talansky received favors from the defendant. A favor by itself does not look like much – the weight is found in the context and entirety of deeds.”

An overview and understanding of the nature of the politician were elements the judges lacked three years ago when they first examined Olmert.

Conviction the first time around would have saved all of us from a superfluous debate over differentiating between cash given to a politician to buy a cigar and cash given to a politician which is used to fund an internal poll – a meaningless distinction that undermined efforts to get rid of government corruption.

Seven years ago, on Passover eve, Olmert was first interrogated in the Talansky case, under cover of a gag order, at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.

It is likely that he, with his sharp mind, understood even then that his meteoric political career was over. It is doubtful, however, whether he knew he would eventually be regarded as a full-time suspect and turn into a symbol.

There was something discouraging in watching Olmert arrive once again at the courtroom Monday, to hear the decree. It seems that the seven years that have passed since he resigned were worse than the years in which Menachem Begin secluded himself in his home. The Talansky affair has just about come to its end today, after much delay.

Soon, the most fateful moment of all for the man who will soon turn 70 will arrive: the ruling of the Supreme Court on Olmert’s conviction of accepting a bribe in the Holyland corruption case. Then it will become clear whether the court system is, for the first time ever, sending a prime minister to prison. And before that, the Jerusalem District Court will meet to sentence him. The same test will also face this panel: whether to impose jail time on the former prime minister.