Olmert's Entering Prison – a Brief, All Too Fleeting Moment of Victory for the Rule of Law

For all its many faults, Israel’s democracy is the only one to have put a president, and now a prime minister, in prison for their crimes.

Former PM Ehud Olmert entering Maasiayahu Prison on February 15, 2016.
Moti Milrod

I admit that I never believed the moment would come. I was certain that the authorities would somehow find a way to keep the former prime minister, with all the secrets he carries in his head, out of prison. Something, a last-minute pardon, a whopping fine and community service – anything but having him serve time. But a few minutes before 10 A.M. on Tuesday morning, it indeed happened.

There is some grim satisfaction to be derived from the footage of Ehud Olmert getting out of the Shin Bet security services jeep, and walking to the door of Maasiyahu prison to start his 19-month sentence for bribe-taking and obstruction of justice.

As he entered, he exchanged his VIP protection unit bodyguards for Israel Prison Service officers. The IPS refused his request to be allowed to go in from the rear entrance, where the camera crews would not be able to record the precise moment Olmert ceased to be a free citizen.

This was a moment of satisfaction because for all its many faults and limitations, Israel’s democracy is the only one to have put a prime minister and president in prison for their crimes. Without a violent revolution or coup. Much more mature democracies have failed to do so. Even the United States pardoned Richard Nixon, rather than see a president behind bars. But it has to be only a fleeting moment. Because this is not just about Olmert and the reign of corruption he facilitated in Jerusalem City Hall and the ministries he headed.

Ten years ago today, Olmert was acting prime minister, having replaced the comatose Ariel Sharon. Six weeks later, as leader of Kadima, a position he assumed also by dint of Sharon’s absence, he won the election as his short-lived and now-defunct centrist party subjected both Likud and Labor to their some of their worst electoral defeats ever. Kadima swept to victory borne on the forlorn hope of Israelis that the leader lying unconscious in Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem would wake up. But the party had actually begun to go down in the polls after Olmert stepped in for Sharon.

A decade later, it’s tempting to see Olmert as an "accidental" prime minister; his three years in office a historical aberration. But while it took an incredible combination of circumstances to bring him to the pinnacle of power, he was a man of the system – one of the longest-serving MKs, with an extensive list of ministerial portfolios on his CV, and two terms as mayor of Israel’s largest municipality. Even if he had never become prime minister, he was a pillar of the political establishment for decades.

More importantly, Olmert’s corruption was hardly unique. His predecessor, Sharon, was saved from an indictment on money-laundering and bribery only because his son Omri took the rap and went to prison for him. Olmert's successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, was the subject of two corruption investigations, from which he was extracted by the skin of his teeth by controversial decisions by the attorney general; he could well become the target of a third investigation that is under way into misuse of public funds, which is currently focused on his wife Sara.

Olmert’s first finance minister, Abraham Hirchson went to jail for embezzlement. Of course it’s not just the Likudniks who were rife with corruption: The alternative to the right wing is hardly much better. The man who forced Olmert to resign as the first accusations of bribe-taking arose, Ehud Barak has himself only recently been cleared of allegations of kickbacks on arms deals with Azerbaijan, and was the subject of his own money-laundering investigation after his victory in the 1999 elections.

Another main suspect in that scandal was the Labor campaign’s mild-mannered lawyer, who kept silent in police interrogations to avoid incriminating himself. He is today leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog.

The man many hope will replace Herzog and finally beat Netanyahu in an election, former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has only just emerged from a five-year investigation over abuse of power. And though he will not face any criminal indictments, the two reports on his conduct as supreme commander of the armed forces make for sobering reading. (Ehud Barak, who was defense minister at the time, only avoided becoming a main target of that investigation because the recordings of conversations in his office mysteriously disappeared.)

And it’s not just the veteran parties of power who are rotten. Three ministers of Shas have been convicted and most of the leadership of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu have been investigated or are still under suspicion of financial wrongdoing. And yet Lieberman is still in politics and Arye Deri, who went to prison for bribe-taking, is back at the helm of the Interior Ministry where he committed those crimes a quarter of a century ago.

Some cling to the nostalgic idea that at least in the past, Israel was an idealistic spartan society and the founding fathers of the Jewish state would never have imagined carrying out such crimes. Well, perhaps it's true that Ben-Gurion, Sharett, Eshkol and Begin never had their hand in the till or accepted envelopes from shady Diaspora millionaires. However, it was, by necessity, the improvised state structures they founded, without clear divisions between the then-nascent nation’s government and financial system, and the lack of proper safeguards – plus the need for foreign capital, often from unaccountable sources – which created the climate in which the next, much less scrupulous generation was corrupted.

Similarly, the masculine-military culture was a prime ingredient in the atmosphere which allowed men in positions of authority in Israel to treat female subordinates as servants of their sexual desires for long decades before societal norms slowly shifted, and President Moshe Katzav went to prison on multiple charges of rape.

When Ben-Gurion received complaints about generals like Moshe Dayan, their service was deemed much too valuable to be threatened by any sex scandal or investigation.

The Talmud in Tractate Gittin says “lav achbara ganav ela chora ganav” – the mouse isn’t the thief, the hole is the thief. Young Israel had much more pressing priorities than plugging those holes in its system. And when things calmed down, no one felt the need to do that. It became like the nonexistent constitution, the false “status quo” between state and religion and the borders Israel still doesn’t have, which could end the occupation of the Palestinians. Just one more thing on the list of tasks we haven't yet gotten around to. 

Is Israel’s government more corrupt than that of other countries? There is no truly objective way of measuring and comparing one country’s level of corruption to another's. Does a high number of senior officials, ministers, police officers and generals investigated and indicted in any country indicate a rotten system or the opposite – that the law-enforcement system is extremely efficient in rooting them out?

Olmert and Katzav are now both in prison, but the system which allowed them to engage in financial and sexual criminality for so long is largely unchanged. A small band of police investigators and Justice Ministry attorneys, backed up by a few elements in the Israeli media, are guarding the holes in the system, but they are too few and lack sufficient resources.

This morning was a brief moment of victory, but all too fleeting.