Why Israel Sorely Needed Harsh Verdict for Olmert

Judge David Rozen's severe ruling in the Olmert case continues the trend of recent years, where the mask has been torn off the faces of Israel's robber barons.

Emil Salman

Blistering. Populist. Demagogic, shrill. These are just some of the descriptions of the ruling handed down on the Holyland case, by District Court Judge David Rozen last week. They’re mostly fair, but, then, the choice of words wasn’t a function of the gravity of the case in question or the importance of the Holyland project itself.

From the perspective of the Israeli economy as a whole, Holyland – a housing project on top of a hill in Jerusalem – is an insignificant blip. Its branding in the press as the “mother of all projects,” or as the most egregious corruption scandal in Israeli history, is totally exaggerated.

But the populism and fiery rhetoric indeed are appropriate: Israel sorely needed Rozen’s words, and his verdict is a defining moment in the history of the rise of the corrupt, exploitative elite that has ruled Israel for the last 20 years.

There have been plenty of watersheds during the rise of the country's elite robbers – the Big Money-Government-Media gang that fleeced the taxpayer, the investor and the consumer.

One such event was the sentencing of Shimon Sheves, former aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Younger readers may think that appropriating land illegally, finagling building permits that never should have been granted, and cuddling up to businessmen and media groups that provide protection, are an Olmertian invention of recent years. Not so.

Just look at Sheves, who had run the Prime Minister’s Office from 1992 to 1995. Shortly after he left the job, the authorities realized he had millions of shekels in his bank account from “advising” businessmen, chiefly builders, who had made fortunes while Sheves was at the PMO.

Like Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak, Sheves hired lawyers belonging to the junta, who had ties with the media and legal system. Thus he managed to string along the legal system and gain public legitimacy among some members of the press.

On October 26, 2000, I wrote, in one of dozens of articles about Sheves: “The fact that most of the verdict was covered by a gag order helped Shimon Sheves and his lawyers in their public-relations gambit – to present his grave conviction of attempting to accept bribes, as a vindication. It worked: The biggest-circulation daily ran a headline: ‘Court: Sheves’ wrongdoing is mainly ethical.’ The entire portion of the verdict dealing with the charges for which Sheves was convicted remained confidential. The combination of confidentiality with respect to the affair for which he was convicted, and his vindication in two other cases, helped Sheves and his lawyer Dov Weisglass to come out looking like they’d won a major victory in court.”

Ultimately, Sheves was convicted in the Supreme Court of breach of trust. But back then, the public was unaware of the robbery by the Big Money-Government-Media gang; they didn’t see through the smokescreen of “security” that blanketed Israeli public debate; and they didn’t realize that the convicted were being shielded by their buddies in the media.

Sheves was followed by the Sharon gang – Ariel, Omri and Gilad – who used security-related panic, the disengagement from Gaza and friends in the press to protect legal corruption, and received enormous sums of money from friends like Austrian gambling baron Martin Schlaff.

Then there’s Avigdor Lieberman, who’s been making a monkey of the police for a decade now, and who has escaped criminal convictions by the skin of his teeth. He never did explain the millions of dollars that sprouted in the bank accounts of his daughter and driver.

Rise of the corruption club

The era of corrupt politicians was just one stage in the rise of the Economic Concentration Club of bankers and tycoons, headed by the cousins who were ruling Bank Hapoalim and IDB (the biggest bank and biggest conglomerate in Israel, respectively): Danny and Nochi Dankner.

Most people still doesn’t realize that the bribes Danny Dankner paid to the head of the Israel Lands Administration, for which he was just sentenced to three years in prison, were part of the foundation on which the Dankner family erected a pyramid of leverage and corruption, through which they gained control of Bank Hapoalim and from there of IDB, while taming the watchdogs of democracy. The media outlets that protected Sharon, Lieberman and Olmert were the same media outlets that protected Danny and Nochi.

Rozen’s sentencing last week of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the judge's views were enabled by a process that took some five years, during which the mask was torn off the faces of the Israeli robber barons, the politicians serving them and the papers kowtowing to them.

The process began with blocking the rescue of the tycoons by using taxpayer money during the financial meltdown in 2009. It continued with the mobile-communications reform and was stepped up a notch thanks to the establishment of the Economic Concentration Committee.

This process received a boost from the social protests of 2011, and reached its crescendo at the end of 2013, when the Knesset passed the Economic Concentration Law, and it had to be admitted openly: The highest echelon the country's business sector behaved like a Sicilian mafia.

If the business pyramids hadn’t collapsed, if laws hadn’t been passed, if markets hadn’t been thrown open to competition – and, mainly, the masks hadn’t been torn off the faces of the abusers – the chance that Israel's legal system would have achieved convictions would have been slim. The tycoons, the bankers and the top politicians would have made sure to “oil” or intimidate the watchdogs.

If not for the turnabout in public sentiment that began five years ago, Rozen’s verdict would probably have never been written.

It isn’t about Olmert

But most of the dozens of people interviewed on television about the ruling missed the main story.

The verdict doesn’t reflect the severity of the crimes, or the evidence. It reflects the process taking place in the Israeli public in recent years. The public, which had been stupefied by the politicians, the media and the generals, woke up and started to shriek: Enough!

The public realized that the growing distance between the terrific potential of this country and the miserable, corrupt reality is entirely man-made – by an ugly gang that has seized control of Israel.

Whether wittingly or not, Rozen was shouting out the cry of a nation that has lost its way. He was shrieking the cry of millions of Israelis who have been robbed of their assets, property and future.

Picking up the gauntlet when it comes to finding evidence is difficult, often impossible. Politicians and robber barons know how to gouge billions from the public each week while keeping their tracks covered. It’s hard to prove criminal intent, especially if the public can’t measure the damage it suffered, financially, socially or in terms of values.

Lack of evidence and legal obstacles could have buried the Holyland case, and its perpetrators could easily have been let go to trumpet their triumph and go on merrily reaming the people. Journalists enthralled by power would have touted them as heroes yet.

The fact that the public "test" remains criminal conviction, not norms, is disturbing and frightening. If we continue to rely on criminal conviction as a tool for social repair, the nation cannot be saved from falling further down the slimy slope of corruption, and not only because of the hurdle of proof – but mainly because here, like in so many other countries, the corruption is institutionalized and legal.

Without norms, without ethics, without integrity, without shame, without ousting the rotten apples from the Israeli orchard – well before the stage of criminal probes – we cannot save the future of the Jewish state.

Yes, corruption does matter

Many involved in business and in some parts of the media and legal system still think that corruption doesn’t matter – that it’s part of life, that personal relationships is the oil of the economy and politics.

Don’t wait for this corrupt machine to grind into action. It isn’t the solution, it’s the problem. The solution will only come from the people, from people who have not yet despaired and lost hope of this nation, people who haven’t given up and emigrated, people who want to raise their children in Israel. People who still don’t think they can’t be beaten, and thus might as well join them.

David Rozen cried out last week. Don’t leave him out there on his lonesome. Cry the cry on every street corner and from every soapbox, on every occasion. Cry out before we lose hope.