Former PM Ehud Olmert Is Back, and He Still Hopes to Clear His Name

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Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem in 2016.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem in 2016.Credit: Emil Salman
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

It has been two years since Netflix's "House of Cards" ended, but for viewers still craving dark intrigues and cruel twists surrounding powerful political figures, the new documentary “Honorable Men”  – on Israel's shamed former prime minister Ehud Olmert – may fill that gap.

At its heart is a powerful man who climbed to the top of the political ladder, only to come crashing down due to hubris, back-stabbing political rivals and criminal wrongdoing.

After serving 16 months of a 27-month sentence for fraud and bribery, Olmert decided upon his release in July 2017 that, for the sake of his family, he had to document his version of how events unfolded. So, family members prepared hundreds of questions and the need arose for a director of photography who could record Olmert’s answers.

Enter Aboulafia and producer Yoav Leshem. From the moment she heard his story and became familiar with the narrative Olmert told her, she says she knew she had to make a movie about it.

A shot from the new film on former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.Credit: Avner Shachaf

Aboulafia, 48, is a respected documentarian, but this is her first political movie on such a large scale. She gained access to Olmert through her long-standing friendship with his daughter, Michal.

“I told Roni that as soon as I start collaborating with her, I no longer have control over the movie,” Olmert told Haaretz. “I told her I respect myself enough so as not to create a dictated type of film. I believe in my innocence and don’t want to produce a heavy-handed movie. I told Roni I expected only one thing: That she be completely at peace with herself and what she’s doing the whole time.”

Aboulafia created a very empathetic film without avoiding Olmert’s conviction or his ensnarement in corruption. On the one hand, she presents his repeated claims that he is not corrupt. On the other, she presents the words of his prosecutor, Uri Corb, and those of Olmert’s former aide Shula Zaken, who ultimately incriminated her boss by divulging private conversations they held that she had secretly recorded.

However, the jaw-dropping monologues of his ex-bureau chief pale beside the appearance of attorney Aviad Visolu, who testifies smugly about the many years he operated behind the scenes against Olmert.

Visoly reveals how he and his settler friends constructed a legal spider’s web around Olmert, piling up increasing amounts of incriminating evidence against him  to the point at which the state prosecution could no longer ignore it. With the generous support of the media, which pounced on every case that cropped up, Olmert’s status was undermined until he was indicted in 2009.

Olmert seen in the documentary with his former aide Shula Zaken, who ultimately incriminated her boss by divulging private conversations they held that she had secretly recorded.Credit: Israel Sun Ltd./ from the Judaica Collection of the Harvard Library, Harvard University

“From the perspective of the right-wing activists who did the investigative reporting, it was a huge success,” says Aboulafia, speaking to Haaretz at her Tel Aviv home. “They prevented the division of Jerusalem. I’m sure that a right-wing person who sees the movie will see them as heroes. This apparatus, which I tried to investigate but could not completely capture on film, included private investigators who are still working to this day. These people are working on the cases of people who are considered dangerous for the settlements in Judea and Samaria, or to the rule of the right. They follow attorneys and judges.

“It’s true that there were things to prosecute Olmert for, but I don’t think he should have stood trial,” she adds. “When a process of indicting a prime minister starts, it cannot end without a conviction, as happened with the Rishontours case [in which Olmert was indicted but ultimately exonerated in double billing for travel expenses], for example.”

That’s a problematic statement. That’s what a legal process is for.

“That’s true. I don’t deny that he committed criminal transgressions, and that he was rightly convicted for what he was found guilty of. But in that process, there are very few attorneys who will do the truly honest thing. I know of only one case – in the Demjanjuk trial [John Demjanjuk was accused of being the concentration camp guard “Ivan the Terrible”] where an attorney discovered evidence that exculpated the accused, and he himself brought it to court. I don’t know many cases in which the prosecution retracts its charges.”

Aboulafia’s documentary shows that attempts to topple Olmert continued at the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when a right-wing protest movement of reservist soldiers arose. Behind the scenes, this movement was promoted and empowered by Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett.

Young Ehud Olmert, seen in the movie. Credit: Israel Sun Ltd./ from the Judaica Collection of the Harvard Library, Harvard University

Accordingly, Olmert’s popularity waned and he was perceived as a failed leader. And it was only in retrospect that Hezbollah was recognized as suffering such an intense blow, investigative journalist and Haaretz columnist Raviv Drucker explains in the film.

Aboulafia also took to the streets in protest against the war as it was unfolding, says relates, but now she has reservations about that protest: “I’m opposed to war. I’m against killing, so I came out and demonstrated. I thought to myself, How can they flatten entire neighborhoods in Beirut, with innocent people trapped there? I must say that I feel great discomfort with the fact that in the end, I was a pawn in a game played by Bennett and Netanyahu, helping them win. I feel I have to account for my actions regarding this issue.”

Not like Yair

As opposed to the articles and interviews that have followed Olmert since his release from prison, the documentary lacks his enraged arguments against the courts. In an interview with Gil Riva on Israeli television, and even more so in the autobiography he wrote while in prison, Olmert lashes out at former State Prosecutor Moshe Lador; at then-attorney general and current Supreme Court Justice Menachem Mazuz, and at former State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss. To these should be added further “guilty” persons in the media, according to Olmert’s version, including investigative journalists Ilana Dayan and Baruch Kra, to whom he attached some embarrassing epithets.

Just like Netanyahu, you too assailed the legal system, calling it corrupt. How are the two of you actually different?

Olmert: “It never crossed my mind and I never claimed that the legal system was trying to wage a coup,” Olmert says. “I had some complaints against the system, but there is a huge gap between my claims and the ones made by Netanyahu and his gang. I believe in the court system; I believe in the supremacy of the law. I say in the movie that I did not take bribes, but when convicted I bowed my head before the court. Factually, this is true. This is also what I said when I entered prison.

“Bibi enjoys the presumption of innocence, but he’s the only person in the world who doesn’t believe he is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Why is that? After all, the court has already ruled that he can serve as prime minister even while standing trial. So now, there’s no threat hanging over the formal legitimacy of his serving in that role. Why would you want to undermine the entire democratic and legal system of this country? It’s because he doesn’t believe in his innocence.”

Or maybe, just like you argued, he doesn’t believe in the integrity of the system?

“Excuse me, but I made myself available to that system. I assailed it a lot, but not as a prime minister. I also didn’t attack it wholesale. What is happening now with Netanyahu is an attempt to undermine the entire system because of one case.”

Another aspect that crops up in this movie – in an attempt to support the idea that tycoons were mobilized in the campaign to topple you, due to the territorial concessions you were proposing to Mahmoud Abbas  was the establishment of the free daily newspaper Israel Hayom in 2007, financed by Sheldon Adelson. The documentary, however, does not mention the massive support you got from Yedioth Ahronoth and its owner, Arnon Mozes.

“The vilest stories about me were written in Yedioth Ahronoth, not in Haaretz. One day after the preliminary evidence given by [Morris] Talansky [from whom Olmert received cash he did not report  a charge for which he was convicted], Yedioth published a huge headline by Nahum Barnea, calling on me to resign. Three weeks passed and I heard nothing else from Barnea. One day, he called my media consultant and asked if I was angry at him. I told him: 'Not at all.' I called him and said everything was fine. I said: 'Let me tell you why I’m talking to you. When Talansky’s testimony ends, you’ll write the opposite of what you just wrote, since you’re a decent guy.' Indeed, after the cross examination, Barnea criticized the state prosecutor, asking how the prosecutor wasn’t embarrassed to bring someone like Talansky to give preliminary testimony against a prime minister.”

"Honorable Men" director Roni Aboulafia.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

What did you feel after you saw the movie?

“I’d like the movie to make people ask some questions. If that happens, I’ll be satisfied. I don’t need the movie in order to know what the truth is. In my view, the truth is unequivocal, clear and evident: I was never offered nor did I accept a bribe.”

It seems unlikely that you didn’t even get offers of bribes, given the powerful positions you held.

“You don’t know the power model; you only know the image ascribed to that model. You’re not living in the real world. People who can offer bribes are people with a lot of money and with the ability to spend it. These people know that when they approach certain people with such an offer, they’re at risk of instantly losing everything they have. Therefore, they are very cautious about doing such a thing. For that, they have to ask themselves if this involves a family that loves freebies, a family that wants to get many things. When there is such a worldview, people can exploit it. When the family calls and asks for gifts, one knows that many things are possible.”

The movie suggests that you're trying to clear your name but are doing so on your own. Your family remains in the shadows. Why is that?

“My family was never part of my public profile. That was my choice as well as theirs. You didn’t see them even when I was prime minister. My family is very united around me. Just two weeks ago we celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary and my children held a wonderful event for us. But my family or children never tweeted too much on Twitter and never posted on Facebook or responded to anything. They didn't receive state protection, were not transported in state cars and didn't eat at the state’s expense. That’s how we chose to live. My wife has done tremendous things that you don’t know about since she never bothered to publicize them. My family is involved in my private life, not my public one.”

Wouldn’t you have liked it if they were interviewed for the documentary, attesting to your integrity?

“I think that if they were interviewed in a movie like this one, comparisons would have quickly been made to Yair Netanyahu. If they come out in their father’s defense, why shouldn’t he? It would have become one more item, and in the end you or the public wouldn’t remember that my sons never stooped to using foul language and never threatened anyone.”

Ehud Olmert leaving Maasyahu Prison, Ramle, after serving 16 months of a 27-month sentence, July 2, 2017.Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

‘I made mistakes’

Olmert’s office is in Tel Aviv, not far from the Carmel Market, one floor away from his associate, attorney Ram Caspi. Caspi has submitted an appeal to President Reuven Rivlin to strike Olmert’s criminal conviction from the record.

The office walls are adorned with paintings of poplars by his wife Aliza, alongside photographs of him with President George W. Bush. A pipe that belonged to the late Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, is preserved in a glass aquarium. Olmert’s speech is eloquent and emotional. It’s obvious that despite his age, 74, and the time that has elapsed since his release from prison, he remains driven to prove that, in contrast to the court ruling convicting him of accepting bribes, of fraud and breach of trust, as well as of obstruction of justice, he is not corrupt.

He brings up story after story, full of details and anecdotes, in order to describe how a raft of legal agents hurt him, acting with negligence, often with malice, in order to harm his political career.

Ehud Olmert at Kadima headquarters on Election Night in 2006, when his party won 29 seats. Credit: Alon Ron

Asked if she understands the difficulty some viewers may have in identifying with the movie’s protagonist due to his insistence on not confessing to the crime for which he was convicted, Aboulafia says: “It’s terrible. It’s very sad for him, personally. But I think he can’t. It has to do with psychological elements, not political ones.

“He regards himself as a good person, and it’s important to him that people around him think so as well. He doesn’t care what you or I think of him. His family and friends are the ones who matter to him, which is why he’s voicing all this. I’ve told him time and again that he’d get points among the public if he’d shed some tears on air, but he won’t. He’s insistent.”

Olmert adamantly refuses to show contrition. “At the end of the movie, I say that I’ve made mistakes but insist that I did not take bribes. I’ll never say otherwise, since I won’t lie to myself. Of course, I made mistakes. Wasn’t Shula Zaken a mistake? She was independently convicted before she said one word about me. She was convicted of accepting bribes worth hundreds of thousands of shekels. Was she or wasn’t she convicted? Was she my secretary? Obviously, I’ll distance myself from her.”

The movie constantly shows Olmert running on a treadmill at home, but it’s obvious to viewers that the man is going nowhere. I ask Aboulafia to what extent she views him as a defeated leader.

“There's a clip in the movie where he talks about the 100-meter dash at the Olympic Games. He says that in this event, you focus all your energies on one small point in time. At that moment, you’re either a world champion who makes history or you come in second and no one will remember you. I think that at some point, his big conflict as a leader figure lies in that. I think he realizes that the public will not remember him as a great leader, but will mainly recall the cash-stuffed envelopes. That is an image with a very powerful imprint.”

"Honorable Men" is available to view online in Israel (with English subtitles) at the Docaviv international documentary film festival until Sunday.

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