The Difference Between Olmert and Nixon

The Olmert affair, with the former prime minister being vilified publicly for his crimes, has implications for the concept of the Israeli family.

Former U.S. President Richard Nixon after quitting the White House, August 1974.
AP photo

The conviction of defendant No.8 for bribe-taking must not turn into a whining-and-wailing competition or an Olympiad of prophecies of destruction.

As in a contest of throwing rings around pegs, it appears that the convicted Ehud Olmert has personally become a lightning rod of accumulated frustration revolving around a whole panoply of issues, while being portrayed as the biggest crook in Israel’s history.

In regard to that, time, as the saying goes, will tell.

The verdict handed down by Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rozen is rife with abhorrence for Olmert’s lies, but its true importance lies in being a watershed for the concept of transparency in the Israeli public arena.

Like the trial of former MK and army general Yitzhak Mordechai – which played a significant role in changing another public norm and in the application of the law about sexual assault – Rozen’s judgment, too, has the potential to act as a catalyst for a change in public norms.

After all, no one seriously thinks that Ehud Olmert with his own hands alone, and devoid of any context, corrupted Israeli life.

The judgment could spur the framing of a renewed code of ethics, in which “breach of trust” will no longer be considered a catch-all offense but be vested with a legal reality that will deter every person entrusted with public funds and assets from receiving payoffs.

But the outburst of abomination for Olmert is not only the result of a schematic division into the good guys (the court) and the bad guys (have we mentioned the arch-crook Olmert? Or, alternatively, those who had the misfortune to be caught).

This is more than the Americanization of culture into binary winner/loser terms.

The Olmert affair has implications for the concept of the Israeli family: No longer can we behave as though we are one big family.

When it comes to the public space, that is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary: If we are not a family, boundaries can be drawn more clearly.

If we are not a family but a public of citizens with equal rights and possessing common assets, we can demand and receive absolute transparency.

It was the inculcation of the value of mercifulness into the concept of the family that led Shula Zaken – Olmert’s former assistant and partner-in-crime – to explain to the court that she had placed Olmert above her own family, thus appealing to the mercy of the court.

“We’re like family” has become an excuse for everything. But Israeli politics cannot be nepotistic, neither in reality nor as a metaphor.

We, the public, are not a family but people who are bound together rationally. No one, man or woman, should handle public funds and public assets as their private property. Indeed, they will treat them better than their private property.

Nor is Olmert Richard Nixon. True, he is supposed to be simultaneously a sui-generis crook and the product of a rampant system. But we need to bear in mind that Nixon, in his later years, underwent a process of remorse and restoration of honor.

And, no matter how much people try to outdo one another in finding ever-harsher ways to describe Olmert’s corruption, no one will deny that the prevalent feeling in Israel is that might makes right – from whose ravages the image of the family is supposed to protect us.

Olmert did not invent this, and the violent tone of speech against him has even offset it.

Naturally, Olmert doesn’t have time for art these days, but the chief curator of photography at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Dr. Noam Gal, is currently showing a project related to the 1976 American presidential election – two years after Nixon’s resignation.

Photographer Richard Avedon shot portraits of 69 politicians and others who were involved in the election, which was won by Jimmy Carter.

And what did he title the series? “The Family.”

Anyone who wants to get a perspective, not least on the Olmert story, should look at this portrait gallery. It’s not really a family.