Justice Served |

Olmert's Sentence: Not a Revolution, but Another Step Toward Good Governance

The six-year prison sentence of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, shocked many Israelis, but it is not exceptional, harsh or extreme. It's suitably severe.

Ido Baum
Ido Baum
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Then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pauses during a session in the Knesset in this February 28, 2007 file photo.
Then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pauses during a session in the Knesset in this February 28, 2007 file photo.Credit: Reuters
Ido Baum
Ido Baum

The sentence given to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday is a heavy and deterring one, but not exceptional, harsh or extreme. Six years in prison fits the gravity of the Holyland corruption case in general, Olmert’s part in it in particular and above all his lofty status as a former prime minister and former mayor of Jerusalem.

The harsh words Judge David Rozen chose to describe the severity of the crime of bribery make for uncomfortable listening, but he is right. The analogy he drew between taking a bribe and committing treason is painful to hear, but it has a basis in reality. When it comes to the Holyland affair — evidently the biggest case of institutionalized corruption in Israel’s history — even this choice of words isn’t excessive.

Olmert was a public servant throughout his political career, someone entrusted with the public coffers and an agent of his constituents. The verdict finds that Olmert betrayed the trust he was given in the worst way. His decisions on issues of public importance were influenced by his private interests. From this standpoint, the crimes Olmert was convicted of were acts of treason against the public’s trust.

The media, and perhaps the public as well, were surprised by the severity of the sentence imposed on Olmert, despite the severity of his crimes and the harsh language Rozen used both in his verdict and during the sentencing hearing. Why were we surprised? First of all, we’ve gotten used to compassionate judges who impose feather-light sentences on white-collar criminals without any convincing justification. Second, we’ve gotten used to judges who show unwarranted leniency to criminals who come from the same social milieu as they do. Third, we’ve gotten used to the idea that a public figure’s high position is grounds for leniency, when in truth, it justifies a harsher sentence. Finally, perhaps some people have internalized the false claims of white-collar criminals — like former Shas party minister Shlomo Benizri, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri and former President Moshe Katsav — that Ashkenazi Jewish criminals walk free, while criminals from other ethnic backgrounds go to jail. When it comes to the war on public corruption, there seems to be no basis for this claim.

In terms of the number of years Olmert will serve, Rozen’s sentence is no revolution. It merely continues the trend of courts treating corruption more severely. Bribery sentences for senior public servants like Olmert are on the rise in Israel, and not just as of Tuesday. When Deri was convicted of bribery in 1999, he was sentenced to three years in jail. When Benizri was convicted in 2008, the district court sentenced him to three years as well, but the Supreme Court increased the sentence to four years.

Don’t be confused. The sentence Deri received was lenient, certainly considering his status as a senior minister and the aggressive trial he conducted in the court of public opinion. In general, sentences at that time were characterized by substantial leniency toward public figures. If you draw a diagonal line from Deri’s sentence to Benizri’s setence on a graph plotting year of conviction versus time in jail, continuing that line upward leads naturally to the sentence imposed on Olmert.

It’s worth comparing Deri’s sentence 15 years ago and Olmert’s sentence today to the sentence imposed on Governor-designate of the Bank of Israel Asher Yadlin in the late 1970s — five years in jail for five counts of bribery. Yadlin was convicted in a plea bargain on the basis of his own confession in a short trial that involved no outbursts against the justice system and no wrangling with the judge. It’s also worth recalling the 15-year sentence imposed on Michael Tzur, a senior National Religious Party activist who was convicted of embezzlement after being appointed to head Zim shipping and the Israel Corporation, which at that time were both government companies.

Yadlin and Tzur were convicted during the golden era of the war on corruption, under the leadership of people like then-Attorney General Aharon Barak and legendary police investigator Binyamin Ziegel. Thus Olmert’s verdict returns us to the days when criminals who betrayed the public’s trust were punished with suitable severity. This isn’t an unprecedented sentence, but it is a sentence that advances the war on corruption.

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