Hall of Shame

Ecstatic applause for Olmert's conviction just goes to show how limited the Israeli justice system is in the face of the rich and powerful.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Ehud Olmert leaving court
Ehud Olmert leaving courtCredit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Justice has been done,” “democracy has triumphed,” “this is a badge of honor for the law-enforcement system” – these are some of the shouts of joy one hears after every conviction of a wealthy, influential person. As if someone had worked a miracle, as if eradicating corruption were not the way of democracy.

But in Israeli democracy, the success of the State Prosecutor’s Office and the courageous judge who confronts political stars and their battery of lawyers is seen as extraordinary, to the point that we must applaud them even if their ability to stop one corrupt official is like throwing a stone in a rushing river.

We might also get the impression that this is faint, polite praise from a citizenry that is immune to amazement when corruption is revealed, and even more so when it comes to punishment meted out for it.

Ostensibly, Israel is in a decent place on the international Corruption Perceptions Index: In 2013, it was 36th out of 175 countries. However, when we remove the Third World countries, it is among the lowest on the list.

But the global comparison is not the most important thing here. More significant are the disgrace and the feeling of shame that these high-ranking criminals bring upon the country’s inhabitants. These feelings are the source of profound unease that comes with every such conviction.

In the case of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, convicted Monday on charges of bribery, Judge David Rozen’s well-polished verdict is also a severe indictment against anyone who ever voted for or supported Olmert and his ilk, anyone who saw his acquittal in other cases as a stamp of approval allowing him to return to political life, and anyone willing to receive a political bribe – that will benefit them in the peace process or a war – or a promise of economic prosperity in exchange for a merciful attitude toward corruption.

This is the same unrequited form of mercy that holds a deceptive dialogue with leaders and, in so doing, eliminates the “active antibodies of Israeli society” to which prosecuting attorney Yonatan Tadmor so proudly referred.

The quality of these antibodies is easy to measure when we realize that the verdict and the serving of the sentence are only a prelude. The fancy wording of a harshly critical ruling slides off Teflon suits of those convicted as they begin their “campaign to clear their names.” Suddenly, they are “the best prime minister we ever had,” “the most courageous general ever,” “a glorious fighter against corruption” or “the politician who gave to the poor and promoted culture.”

Of course, these people also get awards for efforts to move the peace process along, a kind of medal that replaces the black skullcap that ordinary criminals are quick to put on their heads.

The usual custom for corrupt leaders – assuming they don't lapse into a coma – is that a whole world awaits them after their trials, and even after they have done time in prison. There is a kind of second chance in which they return to politics, to the seat of power and to the sumptuous repast that wealth and power enjoy together – even if it is delayed by seven years due to a charge of moral turpitude.

This is the norm that gives rise to the system in which sometimes, as in Russian roulette, the fatal bullet strikes, as it did in Olmert’s case. But this is also the same bullet that ensures that the rest of the players get to stay alive.

The photographs that adorn the wall of the Hall of Shame became even more crowded yesterday to make room for Olmert’s picture. But there is no need to worry: There is enough space for more pictures, which will certainly fill it over the next few years. Olmert is not the first, nor will he be the last of those who believe that it will never happen to them. No. Heaven forbid that these people should avoid engaging in embezzlement from now on, or learn the lesson of Rozen’s harsh verdict.

The wall awaits those who are confident that they will never be caught and that their lawyers are more cunning; those who are sure that after the success of the State Prosecutor’s Office in the Holyland case, it will be afraid of a series of failures and take a break. At worst, they believe, their picture will adorn a monument to the failure of the justice system – the one that boasts photos of criminals who escaped conviction, evaded disgrace or got off on a technicality due to the statute of limitations or fear that fell upon the witnesses. The principle “that people should see and beware” does not apply to them.

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