Our Very Own Berlusconi and MacArthur

Olmert and Ashkenazi showed that if you're one of us, you can be corrupt, you can be a bully, and you can be king.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
 Former Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Former Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.Credit: AP
Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

Supposedly, Ehud Olmert and Gabi Ashkenazi are very different from each other. Ehud is a prince from the kingdom of Jabotinsky, while Gabi is a man of the soil from Moshav Hagor. Olmert is a talented, bold lawyer, quick of movement and speech, while Askhenazi is a diligent officer, cautious, suspicious and quiet. Olmert did not serve in any significant army roles, while Ashkenazi gave most of his years to the Israel Defense Forces. The former mayor of Jerusalem is an elitist and hedonist with a long resume and list of accomplishments, while the former head of Northern Command is still considered a down to earth, modest Israeli.

Nevertheless, ongoing investigations by the Israel Police’s special Lahav 433 unit reveal a degree of similarity in the cases of Olmert and Ashkenazi. As the fog continues to clear and the facts are uncovered, it turns out that both the former prime minister and former chief of staff brought dishonor to Israel’s democracy.

Democracy is more than just free elections held in the privacy of the voting booth, and not just the separation of powers into legislative, judicial and executive branches. Democracy is also a value system that differentiates between the personal and the institutional. Democracy is a set of rules, of dos and don’ts meant to empower a moral order that puts limits on the government’s powers. Democracy is a free and fair press, an active, critical political echelon, and an alert, thoroughgoing public discourse.

But in everything having to do with the king of the elites (Olmert) and the king of Israel (Ashkenazi), these basic principles did not exist. For years, Israel’s Berlusconi and General MacArthur succeeded in ruling the media, bewitching the politicians and putting a gag on public discourse. Even though anyone with a head on his shoulders could understand that the prime minister was acting without restraints and the chief of staff acting without limits, both of them continually flouted all the norms while reaping all the benefits.

Israeli democracy’s immune system failed in the moment of truth. Through charisma, media manipulation and threats, the man who ran the country and the man who headed the army managed to completely sabotage the democratic process. They put the personal before the institutional, took advantage of the system for their personal gain, and emptied of all content the procedures that are the basis of proper administration. Civilian suspect No. 1 and military suspect No. 1 toppled the moral foundation of the system meant to protect the public from the powers on high.

Thinking about what went on in this country over the last decade causes one’s flesh to crawl. For three years, a criminal prime minister sat in office accepting bribes, and is now suspected of obstructing justice, too. For four years, the key suspect in a web of serious crimes and underhanded behavior sat in the chief of staff’s office. Both were cheered wildly. Both were considered macho men. Though it was clear that neither one was exhibiting normal behavior, and were defending themselves by giving orders to the media and manipulating the legal system, both were considered heroes.

The local Berlusconi and MacArthur did with Israel as they wished. They fooled almost all of the people almost all of the time. They presented black as white and white as black. They proved just how weak our defenses are. Everything is possible here. Anything goes. Anything can happen. If you’re one of us, if you play the game, you can be corrupt, you can be a bully, and you can be king.

And so between now and next Independence Day, we must thank the small group of police officials, prosecutors, journalists and judge who stood at the gate, purged this disease and saved Israeli democracy. Without them, we would be a Third World country by now. We must never, ever allow a repeat of what happened in this country under Ehud Olmert and Gabi Ashkenazi. What happened here should fill all of us with horror.

File photo of then IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Sept. 5, 2010.Credit: Alon Ron

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