Court Ruling on Olmert Sets Bar Low for Netanyahu

The courts' severe handling of Olmert's cases means police don't need suspicion of a mega crime to go after Netanyahu.

Ehud Olmert.
Olivier Fitoussi

Whether intentionally or not, the Supreme Court’s verdict Wednesday in three cases against former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sent the prosecution a clear message about its handling of several affairs involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The five justices were unequivocal in their denunciation of Olmert’s behavior. 

“A black flag of illegality flies over Olmert’s conduct,” wrote Justice Salim Joubran in his opinion upholding Olmert's conviction for accepting cash-filled envelopes from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky.

“There’s no need to waste words on the severe, blatant and terrible harm done to the public’s faith in public administration and the integrity of civil servants.”

“This affair, in my view, is painted in strong hues of guilt, and the plain facts speak for themselves,” wrote Justice Isaac Amit in the decision against stiffening Olmert’s sentence for influence peddling at the government’s Investment Center.

“This is the story of a minister who received surplus funds from organizations he wanted to serve, after they were shown fraudulent information,” wrote Justice Uzi Vogelman in a dissenting view against the decision to uphold Olmert’s acquittal on charges of double-billing organizations for overseas trips.

Certain elements of these cases also appear, to some degree, in the affairs involving Netanyahu that police are slowly delving into: suspicions of using cash for personal and political expenses, suspicions of presenting false information to obtain funding for travel abroad from overseas organizations, and suspicions of accepting gifts and other benefits.

The justices treated all of the above with great severity. And this will apparently make it hard for Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to continue setting the delusional threshold he has apparently set thus far for police investigators looking into the Netanyahu cases – that they can question Netanyahu under caution, as a suspect in a crime, only if they find evidence of a mega-crime, like $1 million in a Virgin Islands bank account or a video of interested parties giving him cash-filled envelopes.

In the view of Justices Vogelman and Amit, just four overseas flights that were double-billed should have sufficed to convict Olmert of fraudulent appropriation, fraud and breach of trust.

Moreover, Joubran wrote that for a public employee, receiving any benefit at all could amount to fraud and breach of trust, even if there’s no proof providing that said benefit was given to the employee “for activities related to his job.”

In other words, there’s no need to await a Hollywood-style scenario (say, a diamond ring in exchange for a gas pipeline) in order for police to launch a criminal investigation, rather than a mere “inquiry,” into whether a given benefit enters the twilight zone of criminality.

Joubran rightly set limits to the above statement: Not every gift or benefit given a politician is criminal. Israel must not turn into a country where the police conduct fishing expeditions or topple elected officials over baseless allegations or minor peccadillos. 

But to say the least, it doesn’t seem as if the Netanyahu affairs fall into this realm. Moreover, reading between the lines, the verdict makes clear that there’s no justification for undue leniency and compassion toward people at the political top or for giving undue weight to the suspect’s identity and the political implications of legal proceedings against him.

Furthermore, time is of the essence. The evidence in the Olmert cases would never have come to light without a vigorous investigation and an attitude of healthy suspicion. 

The cryptic notes in the diaries of Olmert’s longtime office manager, Shula Zaken, were what led Mendelblit’s predecessor, Menachem Mazuz, to order police to knock on Talansky’s door at 6 A.M. and take him in for questioning while he was visiting the Holy Land.

The combustible, if confused, testimony that Talansky gave then led Mazuz to telephone the prime minister – who at the time was genuinely busy with affairs of state of the highest order (negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians) – and ask him to make time to meet with police investigators within the next 24 hours.

During that interrogation, Olmert gave answers that later helped to convict him. 

Next came Talansky’s deposition, and then the hints that led investigators to the Rishon Tours travel agency in the double-billing case. The end is well known: An investigation that began in April 2008 ended in Olmert’s resignation five months later.

There are certainly some differences between Olmert and Netanyahu. The former is more daring than the latter, and this was evident in both the way he ran the country and the role he played in the corruption cases against him. But Olmert was never suspected of what Netanyahu now is – being treated with kid gloves.

Wednesday’s verdict to a large degree lays bare all the spin that has dominated the public conversation since the cases against Olmert began. There is no plausible rationale (such as “political funding”) for a politician who routinely accepts and uses dollars from a hidden safe.

There’s no such thing as a politician so preoccupied with fateful issues that he doesn’t know his aides are engaging in fraud with his overseas plane tickets. And for a politician to promote the interests of clients of his personal lawyer, who also happens to manage his hidden safe, isn’t just something that looks bad.  

All these lessons should now be studied and learned – not just by elected officials, but also by head prosecutors.