Olmert Ruling Proves: Israel's Top Court No Longer a Beacon in Fight Against Corruption

Justices handed out some undeserved celebrity discounts in the Holyland affair, including to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Ehud Olmert appears in the Supreme Court on Dec. 29, 2015, for the appeal hearing on the Holyland corruption affair.
Emil Salman

When the Supreme Court delivered its verdict in the Holyland affair on Tuesday, it did not echo the cry of District Court Judge David Rozen from 18 months ago. The truth is that for many years now, the Supreme Court is no longer the standard-bearer of the fight against corruption, apart from a few rulings in which the unique voice of that bastard son of the halls of justice, the late Justice Edmond Levy, stood out. Levy had a deep understanding of the dark mysteries of Israeli politics, as well as the enormous difficulty of every law enforcement agency in the world in besting the cunning and deceptiveness of the hidden connection between money and power.

With the exception of Levy, the Supreme Court cannot satisfy the public’s desires in this regard – certainly not after its rulings on the appeals in the Holyland affair, which extended a few generous “celebrity discounts.” The verdicts – which imply that in order to get convictions, the prosecution needs smoking guns and film of very sub-rosa deeds – could have a chilling effect on future investigations of those who receive kickbacks for selling public interests to individuals with wealth and power.

The Supreme Court’s judgment dwarfed last year’s ruling from the District Court. Even though it adopted parts of it, it smashed other parts to smithereens. Rozen recounted a saga of corruption and bribery of epic proportions, which began somewhere back in the early 1990s and ended two decades later in a violent argument over millions of dollars, extortion attempts and secret meetings that could have been taken from an episode of “House of Cards” – a well-connected businessman comes to the prime minister’s home and exhorts him to come up with half a million dollars fast in order to silence a corrupt old man – future state’s witness Shmuel Dechner – who knows too much and is threatening to talk.

The verdict of the Supreme Court, in contrast, tells a story that is full of black holes, and sometimes makes no sense whatsoever. In this new and definitive version of events, there is one very bad, almost monstrously wicked person: Dechner. That wily man, the Supreme Court tells us, was a master puppeteer, whose puppets were not even aware that they were being manipulated by invisible hands.

Justice Neal Hendel laid out the following narrative: Ehud Olmert’s brother, Yossi, received a large sum of money from Dechner, the master briber, and they concealed their scheme from big brother Ehud in a kind of conspiracy of silence. This is postmodernism at its best: Two men who never met sit in a Tel Aviv café, through the agency of an invisible hand. One, the mayor of Jerusalem’s brother, is in very distressing financial straits. The other is a businessman with vested interests in government. They drink espresso, chat and in no time the businessman hands the desperate brother a few fat checks.

“A scenario in which Dechner, like someone who lays in wait for any opportunity, was the person who initiated the transfer of funds to Yossi is likely to very likely, in my eyes,” Justice Isaac Amit said, by way of adding an additional layer of casuistry to his colleague’s position, bringing the affair to its grotesque climax with a declaration that was meant to further serve the mind game: It is unlikely that Dechner told Ehud Olmert he gave money to his brother, since “the person who bribes the mayor’s brother with hundreds of thousands of dollars doesn’t have to also send flowers and chocolate to the mayor’s office in order to win his heart.”

Amit wrote the chapter of the verdict dealing with Defendant No. 1, whom the prosecution identified as the star of the case: businessman Hillel Cherney, the developer behind the Holyland Park project. In his original ruling, Rozen found that Cherney knew from early on, in the early ’90s, that Dechner obtained permits, concessions, discounts and special treatment by giving bribes, and that Cherney and Dechner cooperated in order to cover their tracks and conceal their dirty dealings from the authorities. Rozen’s thesis was guided by not only logic but also plenty of evidence, including enormous loans from Cherney to Dechner that were not repaid, written correspondence and, later, an explosive recording of one of the parties.

But over the course of dozens of pages, Amit managed to tear down this thesis and reached a revolutionary conclusion: that Cherney only became wise to Dechner’s devious methods in around 2005, over a decade after the project got off the ground – a stage at which all of Jerusalem had realized a monument to bribery was being erected up on the hill. Remember, Dechner had by then paid millions of shekels in bribes to clerks and elected officials. Cherney was the only one who didn’t know about it.

Another unsettling element of the Supreme Court verdict is that the higher you are in the hierarchy of the story, and reality, the more your punishment falls. The five justices mainly reduced the sentences of the four key defendants: businessmen Cherney and Avigdor Kelner, and the two successive mayors of Jerusalem during the birth and rise of the project, Uri Lupolianski and Ehud Olmert.