Will Israel Be a Better Place With a Prime Minister Behind Bars?

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Ehud Olmert arrives at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem December 29, 2015.
Ehud Olmert arrives at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem December 29, 2015. Credit: Reuters

For a small group of journalists who cut their teeth on the local Jerusalem beat in the late 1990s, the fact that they can say openly today – without being served for libel – that the powerful men who ruled the city in those years are bribe-takers is a long-awaited vindication.

Long before Mayor Ehud Olmert went on to become prime minister, we knew he was on the take, but it was impossible to prove it. And it was an open secret that the best way to push problematic building permits through the local planning committee was a hefty donation to Yad Sarah, the medical-equipment charity founded by the saintly Uri Lupolianski, Olmert’s deputy and successor in city hall on Safra Square.

On Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court gave its final verdict: Olmert is going to prison for 18 months, and while Lupolianski’s six-year sentence was reduced on appeal to six months of community service, due to his medical condition, all his convictions were upheld.

What has changed? The Holyland complex, that monstrous residential project for rich foreigners, built through bribery on the ruins of a charming old hotel, still blights Jerusalem’s skyline. Olmert will spend a year behind bars (he will certainly get a third of his sentence reduced for “good behavior”), and be forced to give up his expensive habits of Cuban cigars, fine wines, Hermes ties, expensive fountain pens and frequent first-class flights to soccer and tennis tournaments in Europe and his beloved Manhattan.

But he will be out again before long, his sentence reduced by the efforts of Israel’s best lawyers, their fees paid for by his rich friends.

Lupolianski has already received a hero’s welcome back in his ultra-Orthodox community and is being treated as a wronged martyr because “he never took a penny to his own pocket.” Yad Sarah, the bribery-funded organization which was his platform to political power and still provides him a car and an office, must be treated as sacrosanct because of all the undoubted good it has done.

Former President Moshe Katzav leaving Maasiyahu prison. September 9, 2013.Credit: Moti Milrod

Does white-collar crime still pay? It’s hard to argue it doesn’t. Is Israel better off having convicted the man who was once its most powerful citizen?
But the bottom line today is not Olmert’s individual fate. He and the other men whose convictions were upheld today in the Supreme Court were the elite who managed Israel’s capital for a decade, but they represent a larger ruling class on the bench. A former prime minister is now following a president (Moshe Katzav), as well as finance (Avraham Hirschson), interior (Arye Dery), energy (Gonen Segev) and welfare (Shlomo Benizri) ministers, who all went to prison due to corruption, fraud, drug-dealing or sexual assault.

Just last week, Interior Minister Silvan Shalom, also a former foreign and finance minister, was forced to resign over allegations of sexual assault and is now under police investigation.

Former and serving prime ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu were all the subjects of criminal investigations. Just recently, Barak was the focus of an inquiry of allegations over kickbacks for foreign arms deals, and Netanyahu could well be pulled in to the ballooning investigation over alleged misuse of public funds by his wife Sara (who is to be questioned under caution on Thursday). And we haven’t even mentioned the long years of former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s money-laundering investigation, which controversially didn’t lead to an indictment. And the long list of senior police and army officers who were forced to resign in the last two years due to apparent sexual relations with women under their command.

This is a frightening list that presents a picture of an Israeli leadership rife with corruption and sexual crime. There doesn’t seem to be a corner of the ruling establishment, including the offices of law and order – even serving judges – that has not been tainted.

Some will nostalgically sigh and say that the good old Spartan Israel was a much cleaner place. This of course is a gross misrepresentation of the first three decades of the state, under socialist Mapai. Corruption then was every bit as endemic as during the Likud years – only when the government, the big companies, the banks and the trade unions were all under the same state umbrella, it was much easier to hide illegitimate transfers of funds.

Privatization and the expansion of Israel’s economy, of course, widened the scope for corruption, but there was rot at the roots back then as well, which only began to emerge toward the end of Labor’s rule. As for powerful ministers and generals taking sexual advantage of their subordinates, who even considered that a crime in those days?

The investigations, indictments and convictions are all encouraging signs of a legal system that, despite political pressure, is fighting back. When Olmert enters prison on February 15, Israel will for the first time have both a former president and a former prime minister in jail. That is a badge of shame, not just for the political class, but for the entire nation.

However, there is also some pride to be derived from the fact that in a region where leaders are replaced only with bloodshed, Israel is the only country which has deposed and imprisoned its former leaders by due process, not a coup or a revolution.

There is no room for complacency though. Despite the allegations against Olmert, only three years ago, many senior politicians were eagerly awaiting his decision to return to public life. In April 2013, in front of an adoring group of powerful Israeli businesspeople assembled in a London boardroom, Olmert promised to do just that. They all knew what he was accused of, some of them probably knew there was truth to the allegations, but they still wanted him back. That will now not happen, but the level of tolerance toward corruption within Israel’s elite is still woeful.

The investigations over the years of the Netanyahu family’s financial affairs, even though he escaped indictments by the skin of his teeth, would have forced any prime minister in a Western democracy to have resigned long ago. The same is true of Barak and Sharon. The questionable loophole through which American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson provides Netanyahu with tens of millions of dollars of political funding annually, also known as the Yisrael Hayom freebie, remains shamefully untouchable. Arye Dery, a convicted bribe-taker, is back in government and only political considerations have kept Lieberman in the opposition.

Olmert is yesterday’s man but the rotten system of which he was a major part will still be here tomorrow.

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