The Million Victims of the Holyland Affair

The trial verdict has turned the ugly high-rise project into a symbol of modern Jerusalem, no less than the Old City's walls and the golden Dome of the Rock.

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The Holyland project.
The Holyland project.Credit: Yuval Tebol
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Throughout Ehud Olmert’s trial for the "Holyland affair,” the defense team and associates of the former prime minister repeated over and over that the entire episode boiled down to persecution on the part of the state prosecution.

The proof, they said, was that the offenses, for which Olmert was on Monday convicted, were victimless.

In the so-called Rishon Tours trial (in which Olmert was acquitted), his supporters argued that the charities that funded his foreign trips (for which Olmert also billed the government) profited from the donations Olmert brought in his wake.

In the trial over the Talansky “cash envelopes” affair (again, Olmert was acquitted), the claim is that there was no victim; the American businessman Morris Talansky gave the money of his own free will, and primarily from his personal accounts.

Even in the Investment Center affair, where Olmert was convicted of breach of trust, the prosecution labored to prove that the then-minister of industry, trade and labor showed favor to companies that were represented by Olmert’s old law partner, Uri Messer.

But in the Holyland affair, the “victimless crime” argument is untenable. Here there are nearly one million victims.

Jerusalem itself is the first of them. Its inhabitants, who pass under or see the ugly buildings from their windows, are the real victims. Before it was a major corruption scandal, the Holyland Park project was an environmental, architectural and planning crime against the capital and its residents.

Its buildings, which replaced the modest Eretz Hatzvi Hotel and a green hill that had somehow survived in the middle of the city, brutalize the horizon. They are disconnected from their surroundings, impenetrable to nearby pedestrians or motorists, architecturally preposterous and, above all, ugly.

Assuming that the proposal to level the structures to the ground, doing the rounds on social media, is not carried out, Holyland’s high-rises will remain in place for decades.

How can the damage that has been caused - to the skyline, the hill, the passing drivers and the neighbors - be added as a factor in the sentencing arguments?

In fact, the damage goes beyond the grandiose project itself. Jerusalemites discovered when the verdict was read out that, for 15 years, their city was run by two successive corrupt mayors, atop a bribe-taking cadre of clerks.

Could anyone attempt to estimate the tangible damage this caused the city?

From the late 1990s to the 2000s, Jerusalem declined in every possible measurement. That deterioration is usually attributed to the second intifada, but how much was actually due to the conduct of former mayors Olmert and Uri Lupolianski?

The Holyland Park towers were considered Jerusalem’s most loathed buildings well before the scandal broke. The project became known as “the monster on the hill” years before project-manager-cum-bagman Shmuel Dechner turned state’s witness and exposed his modus operandi to police investigators.

The claim that only a rotten system could have approved the plan was heard in the city almost from day one. After the scandal broke, a wag with a spray can edited the sign at the site, replacing the initial Heh in the name with a Het, to read Holiland (“holi” is Hebrew for illness).

Perhaps the capital city deserves to have these high-rises towering over it forever? The trial verdict has turned them into a symbol of modern Jerusalem, no less representative than the walls of the Old City and the golden Dome of the Rock. Perhaps they should remain there as a monument, as a finger thrusting to the heavens (as one of the city’s veteran environmental activists has suggested) in eternal disgrace, as a memorial to the victims of the corruption.

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