Israel's Corrupt Political System Is a Breeding Ground for Crooked Leaders Like Olmert

The financial connection between shadowy Diaspora tycoons and senior Israeli politicians is nothing new.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Israel's Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
Israel's Former Prime Minister Ehud OlmertCredit: Reuters / File photo
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's sentencing at the Jerusalem District Court on Monday morning - which added another eight months of jail time to the six years he is already carrying from the Holyland bribery case - seemed almost like deja vu. It was only the most recent in a series of courtroom defeats the former prime minister has suffered in the last 14 months since the Holyland guilty verdict.

Since then, he received his whopping first sentence, then lost in the State Prosecutor’s appeal to the Supreme Court to return the Talansky "cash envelopes" case to the District Court, where the new evidence from his trusted bureau chief Shula Zaken overturned the previous acquittal and secured another guilty verdict. And now another custodial sentence.

It all seems so inevitable. For more than a year now, the once globe-trotting Olmert's passport has been withheld, grounded. He is forbidden from the First-Class departures lounge at Ben Gurion Airport - from where a flunky would be sent to pick up a pile of duty-free Cubans to feed his fabled $300-a-day cigar-smoking habit - then off to Champions League matches in Europe’s football stadia, or to Wimbledon tennis finals and of course to the regular jaunts in his beloved Manhattan.

More often than not, these came at the expense of one his well-heeled friends or a Jewish organization paying for one of his eloquent speeches. Yet Olmert was talking up his comeback not that long ago.

In July 2012, the same Jerusalem District Court acquitted him of two serious charges and discharged him with only with a relatively minor (or so his many friends in the media interpreted) conviction of breach of trust. Three weeks later, he was the guest of honor, along with his wife Aliza, at a private reception on a super-yacht moored at London’s Canary Wharf. His host, Australian-Israeli shopping-center billionaire Frank Lowy, had been named as a potential buyer of Bank Leumi, another case in which Olmert had been the subject of a criminal investigation for allegedly altering the terms of the tender. But the attorney general dropped the case.

Over the next few months, his circle was buzzing with rumors that he was planning to take on Benjamin Netanyahu in the January 2013 Knesset election. The media took him seriously. Tzipi Livni apparently would step aside to allow him to lead the centrist camp. He didn’t jump in, but in April he was back in Canary Wharf, this time at a private fundraising event at the local Goldman Sachs headquarters. Olmert promised his listeners, a group of expatriate Israeli businesspeople that he would run for prime minister in the next election. He was warmly applauded.

What were they all thinking? Olmert still faced the Holyland indictments, had escaped three corruption charges by the skin of his teeth and the prosecution was appealing. Five and a half years earlier, Morris Talansky’s deposition, in which he detailed how he passed envelopes stuffed with dollars for Olmert’s use, had forced him to resign from the prime minister’s office, and yet some of the most respected members of Israel’s business community and political media were cheerleading his return.

Today, no matter how the Supreme Court rules on Olmert’s appeals and whether or not he is actually incarcerated, no one cares to be reminded of his nascent comeback. However, it is important to remember that episode since it proves that while Olmert may have finally left public life, Olmertism is still with us.

Olmert wasn’t a pioneer of the financial connection between shadowy Diaspora tycoons and senior Israeli politicians. Leaders of all the major parties were in on it when he was still a young organized-crime-busting MK. Ariel Sharon, Ezer Weizman, Shimon Peres - to name but a few - all had their benefactors. Olmert was more brazen and blatant perhaps and certainly more avaricious, but he didn’t invent anything.

Some of Olmert's fellow favored members of the club are Avigdor Lieberman, Ehud Barak and Arye Dery, who have all enjoyed the largess of money-men from Vienna to Vegas. And of course Olmert’s successor Benjamin Netanyahu has only streamlined this sordid relationship by accepting the patronage of Sheldon Adelson and his Bibi-supporting Israel Hayom freesheet. Jewish money corrupted the politics of the Jewish State decades ago, and it was a wonder that Olmert hadn’t been caught much earlier.

With Israel's wave of prosperity (for a select few) over the last couple of decades, local tycoons have also got in on the show. What a coincidence that hours after Olmert’s sentence came the resignation of Antitrust Authority head David Gilo, who refused to swallow Netanyahu’s decision to allow Yitzhak Tshuva’s natural gas monopoly to continue controlling most of Israel’s offshore gas-fields. Did you expect the new reforming finance minister Moshe Kahlon to object? Don’t be ridiculous: Kahlon spent the last couple of years heading a research center at the Netanya College of which Tshuva is the main donor.

True, these connections between big business and politics are not unique to Israeli leaders; they’re part and parcel of nearly every western democracy. But what is pretty unique is how Israel’s dysfunctional political system allowed Olmert to become prime minister in the first place.

Everyone knew that the mayor of Jerusalem was dodgy. He was elected twice simply because the shrinking left-wing and liberal communities of the capital were too weak to field a credible challenger to the Likud’s representative, given a blanket endorsement by the ultra-Orthodox rabbis. But he was deeply unpopular even within his own party. He did so badly in Likud's 2003 primaries that he barely scraped into the Knesset and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to give him one of the top ministerial jobs.

Only when Olmert threatened to stay out of cabinet, Sharon, who was worried about the damage his vengeance could cause, inveigled him with the sop of the vice premiership. Two and a half years later, when Sharon was felled by a second stroke, Israel got its accidental crooked prime minister.

Netanyahu so far hasn’t made that same mistake. He has refused to appoint a number two, but the way he cobbled together on Monday a portfolio for Gilad Erdan from bogus roles such as “Strategic Affairs” and “anti-BDS” prove once again how the system leaves even the most powerful prime ministers vulnerable to retribution from recalcitrant colleagues.

Just as Sharon was to Olmert, Netanyahu has been to Erdan. Every bastard is a king building his fiefdom of patronage and pressure. Olmert went too far and eventually his kingdom fell apart at the seams. But the Olmertism is still there and being played by wily successors.

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