The Holyland case was never mainly about former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; it was about the criminal and institutional corruption of Jerusalem's planning and construction agencies to create the luxury housing project that gave the case its name. Olmert became the focus after his acquittal on most of the serious charges in an earlier case.
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After that trial in Jerusalem, which was seen as the prosecution’s failure, his conviction on bribery charges in the Holyland case was seen as a change in direction. But even Olmert initially viewed the Holyland indictment as less dangerous to his political future.
Still, despite the attempts by his lawyers and PR team to portray it otherwise, when the Holyland case finally ended Tuesday, the picture was similar to that painted by Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rozen in his initial verdict. There were only a few minor changes.
What are the key issues where the Supreme Court deviated from Rozen?
First, the criminal responsibility of Hillel Cherney, the developer behind the Holyland project, was reduced, and rightly so. Cherney was dragged along by state witness Shmuel Dechner, the chief briber and moving spirit behind the corruption scheme.
Rozen came down hard on Cherney despite writing that he was “the salt of the earth.” But the Supreme Court acquitted him of many bribes initiated by Dechner, concluding that Cherney played no part.
Nevertheless, the justices upheld Cherney’s conviction on other counts of bribery because he confessed to bribing former Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski. They concluded that Cherney’s contributions to the Yad Sarah medical charity were made not solely for the sake of heaven, but to advance the Holyland project, and that Cherney knew it.
A second rift between the Supreme Court and Rozen was Lupolianski’s sentence, which was reduced from six years in prison to six months of community service. The justices took pity on Lupolianski because he was ill, but don’t get confused: His appeal of the conviction was rejected completely. Lupolianski was the chief bribe taker in the Holyland case, even if most of the money went to charity.
Third, Olmert was acquitted on one of two counts of bribery. Ostensibly he was cleared of the more serious charge, since the court acquitted him of knowing that Dechner gave 500,000 shekels ($130,000) to his debt-ridden brother Yossi.
On this issue, the justices split. Four disagreed with Rozen that there was no doubt Olmert knew about the fund transfer to his brother, whereas the panel’s head, Justice Salim Joubran, thought Rozen was right. The majority therefore acquitted Olmert of this charge on grounds of reasonable doubt.
But even on this issue, the gap between acquittal and conviction was narrow. The justices rejected the argument by Olmert’s defense team that in the absence of the actual checks, Dechner’s claim he gave money to Yossi couldn’t be proved. They struck down his conviction on this count only because there was no supporting evidence of Dechner’s claim that Ehud knew about the fund transfer.
Penetrating deep into the thoughts of a public figure is always difficult, and it’s particularly hard for judges probing for criminal thoughts in the minds of public officials.
This time the challenge was especially difficult. Criminal intent was not required but rather proof of Olmert’s knowledge concerning the sum given his brother. Is it possible Dechner granted such a huge sum to Yossi out of the goodness of his heart without making sure his big brother knew about it?
In the opinion of the most experienced criminal expert among the justices, panel chief Joubran, there was no doubt Olmert knew. His other four colleagues on the court thought otherwise.
Immediately after the ruling on his appeal, Olmert claimed that the dark cloud of the Holyland affair had drifted elsewhere. But reality is far different.
Olmert was convicted of receiving 60,000 shekels from Dechner via aide Shula Zaken when Olmert was already minister of industry, trade and labor. This money may have been transferred to the company Hazera Genetics to affect Olmert’s influence over the Israel Land Authority’s decisions, but the money would not have reached Olmert if not for the bribery machine Dechner built during the Holyland affair.
The Holyland case is the root of the corruption. And in any case, what does it matter which affair the bribe was given in? Bribes are bribes.
Olmert can no longer save himself from the stigma of criminality. He was convicted of breach of trust in the Jerusalem District Court in the Investment Center affair. Now he was convicted a second time.
Olmert is still waiting on the appeal of his conviction in the Talansky cash-envelopes affair, in which Olmert was convicted in the second round in the Jerusalem District Court based on Zaken’s testimony. He’s also waiting for the state’s appeal of his acquittal in the Rishon Tours double-billing affair.
In addition, the state prosecutor is waiting for the decision in the investigation into obstruction-of-justice suspicions in an alleged attempt to buy off Zaken. Her testimony needs to be heard as well.
The Holyland affair remains a matter of the corruption of Jerusalem City Hall. The appeal by Uri Sheetrit, the Jerusalem city engineer and the most important figure from Dechner’s point of view in promoting the Holyland project, was rejected. He will serve seven years.
The appeal by Lupolianski was rejected completely. The appeal by former Deputy Mayor Eliezer Simhayoff was only partially accepted. The conviction of the middleman, Dechner’s right-hand man Meir Rabin – the glue that held the bribery machine together – was upheld.
The Supreme Court ruling teaches us that Dechner, the state’s witness, ran a sophisticated bribery machine in Jerusalem. And with great success.