Israelis Let Olmert Lead Them Into Their Worst Moral Breakdown

The elites who chose not to see the writing on the hill gathered around the corrupt mayor and anointed him king.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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Olmert, left, with Lapid at the funeral of Tommy Lapid in 2008.
Olmert, left, with Lapid at the funeral of Tommy Lapid in 2008.Credit: Government Press Office
Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

The corruption was written on the hill. Everyone living in Jerusalem knew that the hill was corrupt, just as every Jerusalemite knew that the mayor was corrupt – at least those who didn’t get embraces, scoops or building rights from him.

All the same, the mayor of Jerusalem rose higher and higher: senior minister, deputy prime minister, prime minister. With the active support of the Israeli elite, the corrupt mayor of Jerusalem became the corrupt prime minister of Israel. The elites who chose not to see the writing on the hill gathered around the corrupt mayor and anointed him king, thereby abusing their power and corrupting their kingdom. Where oh where will they put their shame?

I will never forget those dark days. On Fridays I would watch a television program in which I would be attacked by the father of the man who is now the finance minister for having talked about the corruption at the top of the hill. By day I needed to defend myself against those above me, who were close to the corrupt one on the hill. In those days, no media outlets told Israelis what every Jerusalemite knew when looking at the hill.

Not a single member of the elite warned about the overt corruption. Everyone was his buddy. Some got hugs, jokes or information from him; others got open doors, the Israel Prize or false hope. The corrupt one went ahead and tainted every good part of the land and every kind of elite: business elites, media elites, security elites, political elites and even legal elites. The big story of his shame is the huge story of our shame. Willfully blind, we turned the prime corrupt one into the prime minister.

The criminal proceedings were long and exhausting. But there was no need for the witnesses or the judge to know just who Ehud Olmert was. In a few short years, the promising young corruption-fighting man from the post-Yom Kippur War era became the embodiment of public corruption in Israel.

Everything was already known. Olmert had previously been accused of receiving a loan in 1981 from a fictitious company owned by a bank CEO, and of covering up illegal donations to Likud by providing false receipts. We didn’t need the facts uncovered by police investigators or the courage displayed by state prosecutors to know that something was rotten in the state of Olmert.

But Olmert’s network was everywhere. His messengers were active in every field. In a brilliant combination of incentives, threats and Sicilian-style emotional intelligence, our Likudnik, our source of information, our friendly politician spread his net over the entire country.

When veteran journalist Dan Margalit bravely spoke the truth, he was denounced and ostracized. When the police began investigating, they were attacked and threatened. Israel Prize laureates, finance ministers and many others acted as the long arms of the corrupt man from Jerusalem, pushing Israel into the moral abyss. What will they do today when they stand in front of the mirror?

The Holyland affair is shaping up to be the biggest corruption scandal in Israel’s history. Along with Olmert, those offered or accepting bribes include another former mayor, a municipal engineer, a city council member, a chairman of the country’s largest bank and a man who, in large part, controlled Israel’s most important media channel.

But the story of Olmert is larger than life. It requires an author who will write an epic that covers questions like the following. How did the man make his way into the Israeli power structure? How did he take control of the country’s most powerful networks? How did he live a double (or triple or quadruple) life? How did he have the emotional strength and evil charm that let him lead a whole nation into a moral breakdown not seen in all its 66 years?

In a certain sense, Ehud Olmert became the ultimate Israeli of the past generation: direct as well as devious, intelligent and superficial. He was a seducer and an aggressor, a local and a man of the world, a fortune hunter and a friend, full of charm yet dark and shady. But this ultimate Israeli was corrupt to the core. He was corrupted, he corrupted others, and he nearly turned the one country we have into a corrupt kingdom of degeneration.

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