Review |

Manipulative Documentary on Olmert Plays Into Netanyahu’s Hands

The one-sided narrative in a new film about the disgraced former prime minister claims that a blend of right-wing plotting, overzealousness by the police and prosecutors, and a betrayal by close associates led to Ehud Olmert’s conviction

Shany Littman
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Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a scene from "Honorable Men."
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a scene from "Honorable Men." Credit: Uri Ackerman
Shany Littman

The documentary “Honorable Men” (“Olmert: The Man Who Wanted too Much” in Hebrew) has Roni Aboulafia’s name attached to it as director, but it seems to me that the film perfectly encapsulates the former prime minister’s perception of reality.

Through selective editing, it tells a story that ignores many of the inconvenient truths for Ehud Olmert, who was convicted of accepting bribes and spent 16 months in prison for his crimes.

One of the film’s opening lines claims that Olmert doesn’t wish to present himself as a victim. Yet that’s exactly what he does as he presents the circumstances that led to his prosecution, and the events that brought him from the prime minister’s office to a cell in Ma’asiyahu Prison.

According to the narrative presented in the movie (which premiered at the Docaviv documentary festival earlier this month), Olmert fell victim to political and personal persecution by his associates. He’s also a victim of his arrogant nature – or as one says of fallen heroes, a victim of his own hubris. This is clearly a bad trait, but it places those suffering it in the rarified realm of Greek mythology. It also sounds so much better than falling victim to plain old greed.

Aboulafia told Haaretz recently that due to her long-standing friendship with Olmert’s daughter Michal, the former premier invited her to make a film that would present his version of events. There’s nothing wrong with making a film that offers the perspective of someone convicted of criminal wrongdoing, and Olmert has the right to claim he was wronged (he’s already made that case in an autobiography he wrote while in prison, published in 2018).

Ehud Olmert in an image taken from the documentary "Honorary Men."
Ehud Olmert in an image taken from the documentary "Honorary Men."Credit: Israel Sun Ltd./ from the Judaica Collection of the Harvard Library, Harvard University

But Aboulafia doesn’t make do with presenting reality through his eyes. She gives the documentary the air of investigative journalism, ostensibly independent, validating his version via a long list of interviews. Some of them are clearly with Team Olmert, such as his defense attorneys Liat Arazi and Navit Negev, and his consultants Yaakov Galanti and Shalom Turjeman.

Some interviewees seemingly have no vested interests, such as journalist Ben Caspit (who argued back in 2012 that there was a politically motivated conspiracy to topple Olmert), and investigative reporters Raviv Drucker and Nahum Barnea, the latter making the briefest of appearances.

There are also interviewees from the other side, such as the prosecutors in Olmert’s various trials Uri Corb and Jonathan Tadmor, and Olmert’s former aide Shula Zaken, who, crucially, ended up testifying against him. They are woven into the film in a way that validates the theme of a protagonist who went against the tide, with all of nature’s forces united in trying to bring him down.

Above them all shines the indisputable star of this narrative: Advocate Aviad Visoly, a far-right activist who claims he was responsible for the entire campaign of investigations and testimonies against Olmert, which generated the trials that led to a change of government. Thus, it wasn’t investigative journalists or even a renowned right-wing leader, but rather a retired lawyer – an activist in the Greater Land of Israel Movement – who was the mastermind who engineered Olmert’s downfall and Benjamin Netanyahu’s political renaissance.

If we are to believe the film, Olmert was in fact a left-wing premier, perhaps more so than Yitzhak Rabin, who strove tirelessly for achieving peace with the Palestinians. He was even willing to make compromises over Jerusalem and the right of return of refugees – things the Palestinians themselves hadn’t even dreamed were possible. Though Olmert was raised in a Revisionist right-wing home, and as mayor of Jerusalem repeatedly said the city would never be divided, according to his own testimony these were empty slogans that he overused and later regretted saying.

When he became prime minister in 2006, replacing Ariel Sharon, he was ripe for revolution, we’re told. He forcefully evacuated the West Bank outpost of Amona, he met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas 36 times, proposed far-reaching peace plans to then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and more.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a scene from the documentary "Honorable Men."
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a scene from the documentary "Honorable Men."Credit: Avner Shahaf

Right-wing conspiracy?

All of this put him in the crosshairs of the right. “The disengagement [from Gaza] showed us that he was the most dangerous left-winger, so we met to discuss how to get rid of him,” Visoly explains. He adds that this was the first time they decided not to do so through a public political campaign aimed at toppling the government coalition. Instead, the method was to accuse Olmert of corruption. Visoly says he placed an advertisement in the right-wing press, asking for anyone with inside information on Olmert to contact him.

According to the film, Visoly’s actions produced a raft of affairs that led nowhere, until the appearance, as if by special invitation, of Morris Talansky – an American Jew who reported that on several occasions he had handed over cash-stuffed envelopes to Olmert. This was in 2008. But Aboulafia blithely skips over a no-less significant case, which began much earlier than the Talansky case and led to an indictment and conviction: the so-called investment center case.

According to a 2006 Haaretz report, Olmert, as trade and commerce minister, promoted the interests of clients of his good friend, attorney Uriel Messer, failing to recuse himself from discussions in which he had a conflict of interest. Olmert was subsequently convicted of breach of trust. The exposure of this affair was due to the work of Haaretz reporters Uri Blau and Gidi Weitz, so could hardly be attributed to right-wing activists.

In general, “Honorable Men” completely overlooks the role investigative journalists played in the Olmert affair. They’re mentioned in passing – once by Yosef Cohen, the former editor of Jerusalem weekly newspaper Kol Ha’ir, who says in two sentences that his paper dealt intensively with Olmert during his tenure as mayor, and once again by Visoly, who claims that the press applied “the strongest pressure on the State Prosecutor’s Office” and the police. In other words, the latter were pawns manipulated by the media.

The second part of the movie deals with Olmert’s two trials. In the first, where he was accused of double billing for his overseas trips (the Rishon Tours affair), he was exonerated. In the second, the Holyland affair, he was convicted of receiving illicit funds.

Olmert’s former bureau chief Zaken slides into the narrative with ease: she initially defended her boss, but when he was acquitted of some charges and she was found guilty, he didn’t contact her or send her flowers, and she was offended. The documentary presents her as a spoiled and selfish woman, who became vengeful as soon as she didn’t get what she thought she deserved.

Olmert belittles Zaken in his conversations with Aboulafia, held while he was in prison, showing the same arrogance he displays throughout the film. “The secretary didn’t want to be a secretary; she wanted to be bureau chief, she wanted to be recognized,” he says. “At some point, she started receiving money from all sorts of people. The bribe she took wasn’t the first or only instance, in my opinion. It became a method.”

Shula Zaken after the verdict was delivered in the Holyland trial.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

The descriptions of the Olmert investigation, even by seemingly objective sources such as a police investigator from the fraud unit, are edited so they only tell one side of the story. Not only were these investigations born of a right-wing desire to remove Olmert from office, but investigators requested further evidence from any possible source, we’re told. The questioning of witnesses was also unfair, the film adds. The main witnesses, Talansky and Shmuel Dechner, were “questionable” characters: Talansky was “confused” and “right-leaning politically,” while Dechner was allegedly a crook trying to save his own skin by testifying against Olmert.

Topping it off is Olmert’s defense attorney Arazi, who claims that prosecutor Corb “really wanted to win this case” – as if he was supposed to want to lose. She later adds that Judge David Rosen, who convicted Olmert, was biased against her client and saw him as a corrupt person even before the trial began.

No remorse

The main problem with Aboulafia’s film is not the rehabilitation job it tries to do on Olmert’s reputation or bemoan his missed role in Israel’s history. The man has served his sentence, and even though he’s unwilling to express remorse or engage in any soul-searching, that’s his business. But the picture the film attempts to portray – of an entire campaign driven by political motives, never mind the accusation that the charges were invented by prosecutors – is a manipulative misuse of the facts.

We can’t help but be reminded of another prime minister accused of criminal wrongdoing, who’s also obsessively claiming that the charges have been cooked up. The unavoidable conclusion from Olmert’s story, as presented here, is that there are no fair trials in Israel – especially not for public figures.

Ehud Olmert in "Honorary Men."
Ehud Olmert in "Honorary Men."Credit: Avner Shahaf

If Aboulafia’s intention was to lament the peace process that was cut short by Olmert’s fall, as her conversation with him at the end of the film suggests, this film could turn out to be a double-edged sword, which could provide legitimization for all those claiming that Netanyahu’s trial must be canceled since it’s driven by impure and irrelevant motives. He too is fiercely competing for the role of martyred saint.

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