The machinations behind the Holyland affair, the real estate corruption scandal that resulted in a bribery conviction for former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday, began in the second half of the 1990s and stretched into the early years of the previous decade. It turns out that while Jerusalem was racked by terrorism, the city’s mayor was involved in other things – and not just the payoffs that gave rise to the Holyland apartment complex.
The other tortuous corruption scandals that Olmert managed to get out of by the skin of his teeth – the Investment Center breach of trust case (conviction but no jail time), the Rishon Tours fraud case and the $150,000 in cash from U.S. businessman Morris Talansky (acquittals in both), and the allegations that he tried to influence the sale of the state’s controlling interest in Bank Leumi (no charges filed) – took place in the same period, when Olmert was a public figure serving in various government positions: mayor of Jerusalem, industry and trade minister, finance minister.
In other words, Olmert was suspected of being corrupt long before Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke, which ushered Sharon’s second-in-command into the Prime Minister’s Office in January 2006.
This timeline raises one question: What the hell was Olmert thinking?
Court documents indicate that he made inappropriate political appointments and, despite a clear conflict of interest, acted to expedite his friends’ projects at the government-run Investment Center, and accepted large sums of money from an American businessman. (He was acquitted not because there was doubt over whether he took the cash but because the court was not convinced he took it for personal gain.) And it has now become clear that he accepted large sums of money to approve construction plans. Olmert, of course, knew all about his own exploits when he took Sharon’s place as prime minister.
As it was, Olmert took the job without much of a defense background, a hole in his resume that was painfully prominent during the Second Lebanon War. When he took the most important job in Israel, wasn’t Olmert concerned that he could have been subject to blackmail? That too many people had information about him that could cost him his job? Looking back¸ it seems there is a point at which a person must say: Thank you for the honor, but the truth is this job is too much for me.
Israeli prime ministers from the past generation have not exactly been pure as snow. None of them seem to be models of ethical behavior and good governance. Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu have all been under investigation. Olmert presumably knew he was in deeper trouble than any of them. As long as it isn’t overturned by the Supreme Court, Olmert’s conviction on Monday proves that his appointment as prime minister in 2006 was fundamentally improper.
There’s another depressing element here. For at least a decade, there has been a communications empire that praised Olmert’s leadership skills and political moderation to the heavens, and dismissed media investigations of his actions. These are the lawyers and public relations experts who were paid for their efforts, along with some journalists and friends who did it for free. The Tel Aviv District Court’s decision yesterday eliminated the smokescreens that had deliberately been placed around the Holyland affair.
Let’s also say a word about the second dubious achievement for which Olmert will be remembered, aside from being the first (former) Israeli prime minister to be convicted of bribery: the war of the summer of 2006. Despite the claims that Olmert and his supporters have made since then, the Second Lebanon War was conducted terribly. The Israeli leadership embarked on the war boastfully and thoughtlessly, without understanding the significance of the decisions it made. The government zigzagged on its positions during those 34 days, while sending out Israel Defense Forces units without a clear objective. And in the final, most critical phase of the war, a foolish decision was made to approve the army’s advancement – a move that cost the lives of 35 soldiers in 60 hours, without a single real achievement to show for it.
The quiet that has prevailed on the Lebanese border for nearly eight years is not the result of Olmert’s brilliant leadership, but of the destruction Hezbollah and Israel caused each other. Both sides came to understand full well what the enemy’s firepower could do, and since then both have been wary of another conflict. In addition, assisting the Assad regime in Syria has kept Hezbollah busy for the last three years.
It could well be that Olmert acted wisely when it came to the bombing of the Syrian nuclear facility in September 2007, an act that has been attributed to Israel. It could even be that he’s a born manager and a warm and beneficent person, as almost everyone who has worked with him is ready to swear. But Olmert shouldn’t have waited until March 2009, when the Talansky affair proceedings pushed him to resign, before he left office. And we didn’t need the Holyland conviction to show us that he’s not fit for public office. He should have resigned on August 14, 2006, the day on which the cease-fire he agreed to, at a delay that cost so much, went into effect.
Since Olmert was found guilty of bribery in the Holyland case, I cannot stop thinking about two IDF company commanders I wrote about who were killed during that cursed month in Lebanon. What would they have thought about the man who sent them to war had they known about the skeletons in his closet?
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