Sailing From the Greek Island to Bank Leumi

On Tuesday night, moments before the Wednesday morning edition of the papers were sent to print, a leak sprang. The chief of staff, Dan Halutz, had quit.

On Wednesday morning, it turned out that the leak had done its work. The news that the prosecution were commencing a criminal investigation into the prime minister of Israel, on suspicions that he tried to influence the sale of Israel's second-biggest bank, Leumi, was unceremoniously relegated to the bottom of the page. The story of the day was Halutz.

By Thursday you'd need a bloodhound to find a trace of the Olmert story. Yedioth Ahronoth, the most widely circulated paper in Israel, didn't even mention the Leumi-Olmert case in its news pages. It did in the business section, at the top of page 8, in the context of what-next-with-Leumi's-privatization.

How does a criminal investigation against the head of state become so marginalized in the press, two days after it commenced? Is it only because of the Halutz story?

Far from it. The thing is, a criminal investigation against the prime minister really is not that big a deal. It's pretty standard in our part of the world. Think about it: which of our prime ministers in the last 20 years hasn't been suspected of this or that criminal involvement?

The most popular of the lot, Ariel Sharon, was, to the best of our recollection ,involved in three criminal affairs in the last five years alone. Or maybe it was four. But who's counting. Who cares.

A frightening picture

The prime minister's lawyer, Eli Zohar, hastened to announce that the prime minister's functioning wouldn't be hindered by the investigation.

That sounds preposterous. It is a criminal investigation, is not it, and one would think that a person under a cloud like that would devote his attention to his personal affairs, not to running the country.

But politicians in Israel 2007 are a talented lot. Criminal investigations are nothing special. They can spend the morning being grilled in the Bat Yam police squad, or at Lod, and by noon be seated at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Council, or the Economics Committee; afternoon will find them at some political rally, and come evening they'll be gracing some chat show on public television, vividly explaining just why we should, or should not, negotiate with Assad.

And regarding the police investigation into Ehud Olmert's alleged involvement in Bank Leumi's privatization, the prime minister is being perfectly sensible to be sanguine.

Sign of the feet

All he has to do free a couple of hours and surf to the website of the attorney general, and enter the search code "Greek Island", and click on the link leading to the decision made on June 15, 2004: "Decision in respect to Ariel Sharon and Gilad Sharon in the 'Greek island' affair and Dudi Appel's lands". Olmert can read the 76 pages, sit back and relax, swing his feet onto the desk, light a cigar, and explain to his frightened staffers exactly why it's all over.

Attorney general Meni Mazuz's short report on the Greek Island, Gilad Sharon, son of, and the developer David Appel, exposes the reader to an ugly picture of Israel's political system. It describes how the prime minister, acting as foreign minister and ministry of infrastructure, meddled in the private real estate dealings of his friend, Dudi Appel; how Appel hired the services of Gilad Sharon for a vast sum of money, to do not much; and how Sharon's politics and Appel's businesses became intertwined.

Sodom and Gomorrah, the reader will think as he peruses the text; but every few pages he comes across a reassuring message from Mazuz: "No evidence." "No indication." "Doubtful if this can be seen," and, "Doubtful if this can be proved."

Regarding the $640,000 that Gilad Sharon received from Appel for 15 months of consulting services, Mazuz writes: "Although it's not a routine employment deal, in character and in remuneration, there is no evidence and certainly not of the quality required for criminal trial to establish a claim of fictitious employment, without real purpose, that could in and of itself serve as a basis for charges that the employment actually served to cover corrupt payments to Sharon."

On page 38, the reader will learn that on July 1997, Ariel Sharon's good buddy bought 1,400 dunams of land zoned for agriculture in a moshav called Ginaton, east of Lod, for $24 million. It was an eye-popping amount of money, given that the Israel Land Administration had not provided the requisite approvals.

Two months after Appel gambled $24 million on the land, a meeting took place in Sharon's office - at the time, he was also the infrastructure minister and as such, in charge of the Israel Land Administration. The meeting convened at the behest of Appel's partner, attorney Dror Hoter-Yishai.

At the end of the day, the professional echelon at the Israel Land Administration managed to torpedo the plans of Hoter-Yishai and Appel. But Mazuz's report does not address the question -  how the infrastructure minister convenes a special meeting to discuss the project of his friend, and even criticizes the ILA at the meeting.

What did Mazuz write, then? "It would have been better for Sharon to have recused himself from directly handling Appel's affairs, given their personal and political relations. However, his conduct was not criminal, nor is there any claim that it was."

When Mazuz is not dismayed

If the attorney general is not dismayed that Sharon tried to advance the business of his buddy Dudi Appel - albeit unsuccessfully, why should he get upset that Ehud Olmert attended meetings on Bank Leumi's privatization, without revealing his relations with a potential buyer, the Australian billionaire Frank Lowy?

To judge by the norms in our civil service, the "Leumi scandal" will end with Mazuz, or somebody on his behalf, writing, "It would have been better for Olmert to have recused himself from directly handling Lowy's affairs, given their relations."

The Mazuz report, which as said you can read online, is very revealing about how politics works over here, about how Israel's connected business people get rich, about the penchant among businessmen who need contacts for employing politicians' relatives. In short, it's very revealing about the relations between wealth and governance in Israel.

But nobody took any interest in the report anyway. If anything it was quickly turned into proof that the Sharons were pure as the driven snow and were wholeheartedly devoted to the greater good of the people of Israel. The attorney general said it wasn't a crime.

Even when our public officials are convicted of crimes, it doesn't seem to matter much to the public. Shimon Sheves was convicted but morphed into a successful businessman in no time, into a consultant to another comeback kid, Ehud Barak, and into a much-sought after commentator on television.

In a country where dozens of politicians and public officials have been caught indulging in ugly, unethical conduct, another criminal investigation into a prime minister loses impact. If there are no basic norms of ethics and conduct, if nobody knows the difference between right and wrong, if there is no shame, then there's no wonder that a criminal investigation into the prime minister of Israel gets relegated to page 8 of the business section.