Olmert Lost, but the Prosecution Got Creamed

The content of the judges' verdict was less important than the shallow, biased public discourse that began within minutes.

A strange joy swept through the country on Tuesday: A former prime minister was convicted of a crime, but in only one of the three cases for which he was tried. If he doesn't appeal the conviction, or if he does appeal and fails, he will have a criminal record.

That's no simple matter, especially not for Ehud Olmert. He will no longer be allowed entry into the United States, for example, as another senior minister convicted in an embarrassing case has learned, to his great frustration.

There's an inverse correlation between the thoroughness required to read hundreds of pages of a verdict, and the speed required for a media response. But the hasty knew what they were doing. The content of the judges' verdict was less important than the shallow, biased public discourse that began within minutes. Olmert may have lost in court, but the public believes the prosecution got creamed.

And because style always seems to triumph over substance, the biggest losers on Tuesday were not State Prosecutor Moshe Lador and his colleagues, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Those who support Olmert despite his conviction are expressing their discontent with the two figures who benefited from Olmert's forced resignation in 2008.

Anything that weakens Netanyahu and Barak is good news for those who fear that the two are seeking a military venture in Iran. Apparently, some are so worried that they are prepared to ignore Olmert's sins, at least for now.

Olmert, of course, had a secret weapon - Shula Zaken, his protective armor. Since the 1980s, Zaken was a crucial link in a chain that never, ever seemed to reach Olmert himself.

Your average Joe doesn't have a "bureau chief." He makes his own calls and signs his own papers. But Olmert isn't your average guy. He had Zaken to run interference and with her silence block the conviction from floating to the top. Olmert was acquitted in the Rishon Tour case by three judges and a defendant.

As we know, that acquittal took cover in the shade of reasonable doubt; the judges didn't reject the prosecution's version of events, but weren't 100 percent convinced that Olmert's version wasn't plausible. But that doubt stems from an assumption that senior officials are so occupied with affairs of state that they have no thought for the trivial matters of this world; an assumption that they wouldn't get entangled with crimes even if such a thought had flitted through their overburdened brains.

One of those who had subscribed to that forgiving approach, until he changed his mind in the Olmert cases, was former Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. The same attorney general who had closed the Greek Island case against Ariel Sharon then backed the police investigators and prosecutors in the Olmert case on exactly that point - how a busy elected official handles the fine details.

That was the difference in style between Sharon and Olmert, Mazuz said at the time. The former, in his doting old age, managed his office very loosely. But Olmert was into the nitty-gritty, involved in everything. In his role as head of the prosecution, Mazuz could not deny what he had seen while working closely with both prime ministers in his other role as government legal adviser.

The judges had never seen Olmert at work. They relied on witnesses and evidence and produced a retro - if not vintage - list of reasons to be lenient that typified the acquittals of senior officials in the 1990s: All focused on the matter of intent. Because, after all, who can really get into a mayor's, minister's or prime minister's busy mind?

The judges, who spared no words in criticizing Olmert's conduct, nonetheless decided to push back the line between the disciplinary and the criminal. This presents a challenge for the prosecution.

If it restrains itself simply because it doesn't want to look like it's persecuting Olmert - or worse, like someone who can't lose gracefully - it will be giving tacit approval to and reinforcing this old-new norm. Lador mustn't make that mistake; he must appeal and give the Supreme Court the final say on whether Olmert's behavior was merely unacceptable or decidedly criminal.