Holyland Affair Analysis |

How Olmert Lost His Most Loyal Ally

It was fury and fear, not conscience, that slowly turned Shula Zaken against indicted former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz
Ehud Olmert, right, and Shula Zaken in court in September, before their break.
Ehud Olmert, right, and Shula Zaken in court in September, before their break.Credit: Amit Shabi
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

The pivotal moment in the testimony of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s long-time personal assistant Shula Zaken in the Holyland corruption trial was when, a couple months ago, Zaken’s lawyer asked her what she had done with 100,000 shekels ($29,000) she received from state witness Shmuel Dechner in 2004.

Her lawyer, Ofer Bartal, expected her to repeat what she had told him in his office and hinted at during the police investigation, namely that she had transferred some of the money to attorney Uri Messer for Olmert’s political needs. Uttering that version of events in the Tel Aviv District Court before Justice David Rosen would have made it hard to tie Olmert to the funds provided by Dechner.

But Zaken did not deliver the goods her lawyer expected. Instead, she replied that she had deposited the checks in bank accounts belonging to her and her family members and later withdrawn the cash.

“Today, it’s not me. I’m just a doll, and I took the money for myself. What’s your next question?” Zaken said.,

“Shula, no,” urged her lawyer.

But she persisted. “I spent it and enjoyed it, and that’s it,” she said decisively.

“Shula, we’re not playing games,” Bartal tried again.

“I’m not playing,” said Zaken. “That’s the truth, attorney Bartal. I know we’re going through a difficult period and that I’m not letting you represent me properly.”

Cutting the cord

In past few weeks, Zaken decided to stop being a doll. She came to this decision gradually, motivated by emotions rather than an awakened conscience. As Olmert and particularly his lawyer Roy Blecher directed more and more harsh words and animosity toward her (calling her “corrupt” and “a liar”), her fury grew. And with fury came recordings, fresh testimony and possible leads to new misdemeanors.

It’s hard to comprehend how Olmert, a man with such well-developed emotional sensitivities, could have torn the cord between himself and someone who was so fanatically loyal to him for so many years. It’s hard to understand how a lawyer as seasoned as Blecher could have conducted the campaign for his client with such blind aggression. The public has only gained from the human errors of the heroes of this saga — which turned Zaken from a lightning rod into a lethal prosecution witness.

Three weeks ago, when Zaken emerged from the investigation room, there was consensus in the State Prosecutor’s Office that she couldn’t possibly get a plea bargain and that there was no way back from Rosen’s harsh judgement of her. Zaken had given pathetic testimony to the police, refusing to admit to her forbidden ties with Dechner. And she had given very little with regard to Olmert, compared to what emerged later.

Only after she’d been thrown from the top of the stairs did she return to the by-now-familiar investigation rooms at the urging of friends and family, carrying what a person in the know described as “a suitcase full of evidence.” What impressed investigators most was recordings she produced in which Olmert is heard attempting to disrupt the Holyland investigation. Olmert had been subjected to endless investigations with mountains of evidence presented. But authorities had never before had an incriminating recording.

Previously, the prosecution had found Olmert wily and sophisticated, surrounded by tight phalanx of loyal associates (like Rachael Risby, Uri Messer and his brother Yossi), who even when breaking down in investigation rooms and providing potentially incriminating evidence, hurried to correct themselves in court so no harm would come to him.

And then there was Zaken, whose loyalty suggested a blood oath. “I’m stronger than other people, and I’ve accompanied others who weren’t so strong,” she proudly stated during the Holyland trial, while claiming it was her and not Olmert who had received money from Dechner. She turned her silence and concealment into sources of power. She honored her internal moral code.

A gathering storm

She stayed silent during the Rishon Tours and Talanski affairs, not defending herself on the witness stand despite the heavy price. She was tethered to an oath she had given her late father. Ultimately, she was convicted of illegal procurement in the Rishon Tours trial, in which Olmert was acquitted.

Still, she remained silent. She occasionally shared with friends the humiliation she was suffering at Olmert’s hands, making her feel taken for granted. Her breaking was a slow process.

She started recording Olmert over a year ago, perhaps sensing that one day she would need to turn her back to him. Every incidence of his ignoring or disrespecting her away peeled another layer of her loyalty. It wasn’t remorse or a desire to come clean that led her to surrender the recordings to prosecutors and police, but being deeply insulted and fearing a lengthy prison term.

Olmert, who was last week awaiting an eminent verdict, will now have to wait several weeks to hear Zaken’s new testimony. Rosen is expected agree to delay handing down his decision, since when there is suspicion of an attempt to disrupt proceedings, the court has to know if it was misled. If the court doesn’t delay things, it is assumed Olmert will be convicted of taking bribes.

The Holyland affair has seen many dramatic peaks, like Dechner’s sudden death, Zaken’s breakdown on the witness stand and Yossi Olmert’s retraction of his incriminating testimony against his brother. But none will equal the moment, if it comes, when Zaken stands across from Olmert while the court hears recording of their explosive conversations, and their previously linked fates come apart.

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