A Last Look at Israel's Usual Suspects

A brief rundown of Olmert's clique, the men heading to jail for their involvement in the Holyland scandal.

Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz
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Haaretz Daily Cartoon - 31/3/14
Haaretz Daily Cartoon - 31/3/14Credit: Amos Biderman
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

The members of the clique took their place on the defendants’ bench Monday for what is just about the last time. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his bureau chief Shula Zaken need no introduction. They may soon find themselves in a head-on clash, perhaps in a different courtroom, over Zaken’s charges that Olmert obstructed justice.

Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rozen’s decision Sunday perplexed all sides. No one understood why he asked to convene all the defendants without committing to handing down a verdict on the corruption case involving the Holyland real estate project. Apparently the judge wants to maintain control over the unfolding drama.

Two powerful businessmen also appeared in court: Danny Dankner, former head of Bank Hapoalim and an Olmert backer, a known hedonist reminiscent of “The Wolf of Wall Street," and now a serial defendant; and Avigdor Kellner, real estate developer and former head of the Reshet concessionaire that ran the Channel 2 television station. He was a high flyer in past years, and the paper Yediot Ahronot had difficulties publishing an investigative report on him. He was involved in numerous ventures, and is accused of using state witness Shmuel Dechner to bribe top officials to support some of his ambitious projects. Kellner was the only clique member who was wise enough to try to stop Dechner from going to the police, urging the others to pay the disgruntled Dechner millions. Now they probably regret not having listened to him.

A decade ago Kellner urged Dankner to meet an influential ultra-Orthodox bigwig named Rabin, who was the nephew of Yaakov Efrati, head of the Israel Land Administration. Rabin was very much at home in the corridors of power but was later charged with bribing officials. Dankner and Rabin hit it off and met dozens of times. Dankner paid Rabin NIS 1.2 million ($346,000) to get his help in changing the zoning status of the land where Salt Industries, owned by Dankner, stood. Efrati, former director general of the Ministry of Infrastructure, and of Israel Railways, supported a deal which greatly benefited his relative.

Another clique member is Uri Shitreet, formerly Jerusalem’s chief engineer and a Knesset candidate who has all the right connections. When Shitreet owed Bank Hapoalim NIS 2.5 million ($791,000), Dankner arranged for a miraculous deal in which he had to return just a fraction of the debt. Even then Dechner covered the debt as well as paying extra bribes, intended to further the Holyland project. Other defendants in the courtroom also lived in a world in which the right phone call and a cash-stuffed envelope took care of any problem.

Others on the bench are people who got swept up in the whirlpool of corruption, such as former Mayor Uri Lupolianski, who funded his pet charity Yad Sarah with money from developers with vested interests, and is now accused of taking bribes. The misanthrope developer Hillel Cherney allegedly knew that his money was being used to grease palms in city hall in order to build the Holyland monstrosity that replaced his family’s beautiful hotel in Jerusalem.

When Justice Rozen ends his dealings with the Holyland case, he will turn to a case dealing with organized crime, one of whose heads he put behind bars in the past. It will be interesting to know who Rozen sees as more dangerous to society – a violent crime organization or the polite, well-groomed group who in recent years set up a clique with tendrils reaching into every corner, into the mayor's and minister’s bureau, the most powerful banks, the Israel Lands Administration, the most popular newspaper and even the police. Many of the accused knew what was going on in police investigation rooms and warned each other. They probably had a mole there who has not yet been exposed.

The police cannot boast of uncovering this affair. For years, the ugly buildings of the project slowly covered the Jerusalem skyline and no one thought of launching an investigation or collecting evidence of possible wrongdoings. The police were brought into the picture only after Dechner turned to them, as a result of a greed-fueled conflict between him and the developers. Even then a senior police investigator attempted to delay or foil the investigation. Former Attorney General Menachem Mazuz had to force the police to start investigating.

One person will be missing in the courtroom, the one who started the ball rolling. State witness Dechner - who died a year ago - took a beating in his last days from lawyers and journalists looking into his past instead of at the evidence he produced, in their efforts to protect the powerful. Dechner was a manipulative expert briber and liar with a spark of genius, who distributed gifts to all. He corrupted the mighty and then incriminated them, helping to dismantle the clique. However, there are others who have not yet been exposed. Don’t expect the police to uncover them. Just hope that, like Dechner and his cronies, they start squabbling over money.

Decision time has come in the corruption case of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.Credit: Amit Shabi
IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman

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