If Olmert Had Been Acquitted

The former prime minister's conduct up until his formal conviction this week provided plenty of reasons to distance him from the public arena.

uzi benziman
Uzi Benziman
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Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrives at the Tel Aviv District Court March 31, 2014.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrives at the Tel Aviv District Court March 31, 2014.Credit: Reuters
uzi benziman
Uzi Benziman

If Ehud Omert had been acquitted by Judge David Rozen, he would have been back on all the current affairs programs as an authoritative commentator on foreign policy and security in no time. Had he been acquitted, he would have resumed being a sought-after interviewee by media outlets eager to hear his take on how affairs of state are being managed. Had he been acquitted, his personal calendar would have quickly filled up with invitations to important events, dinners, lectures, trips abroad and glamorous soirees in Israel.

In other words, had Ehud Olmert been acquitted in Tel Aviv District Court, as he was (partially) acquitted in Jerusalem District Court, he would still be a hot ticket – a legitimate public figure; someone who the social and political elite would seek to be around. He may well have returned to politics and sought a way to run for prime minister.

In a different, more ethical environment, such as is standard in most Western countries, Olmert would have been banished from public life years ago. No criminal conviction was necessary to see that he was unworthy of leading the country. His conduct up until his formal conviction this week provided plenty of reasons to distance him from the public arena and prevent him from re-entering it.

Olmert learned, when still a young politician, to represent businesses interests in Knesset committees (something that was still permissible in those days) while simultaneously serving as an MK; to obtain an undeclared loan from a bank director, with no interest and no set repayment schedule, and to subsequently come to the aid of the bank director when he got in trouble with the police; to be an MK and purchase a lavish home at a significant discount from a contractor in need of state assistance; to be deputy prime minister and sign a deal to purchase an extra apartment from a contractor at a discount of at least 20 percent below market price, knowing that the contractor needed permits and assistance in accelerating the approval process in the Jerusalem municipality, where Olmert had people who would do his bidding; to be a senior minister and travel on missions abroad whose costs were covered by more than one source at the same time.

For 30 years, Olmert’s name has been connected with episodes that gave off a bad odor. Time and again, his conduct has been investigated by the state comptroller, the police, the state prosecutor, the attorney general, and has reached the courts. Even when a determination was made to close a case against him, not to try him for lack of evidence or to acquit him, the officials involved still felt moved to say things like: “[Olmert] behaved very inappropriately – but the impropriety did not extend into the realm of criminality” (Judge Oded Mudrik in the Likud receipts affair;) “…He behaved improperly and with a conflict of interests that did not cross the criminal threshold” (State Prosecutor Moshe Lador regarding the investigation of the Bank Leumi sale).

High Court justices asked to look at the latter case approved the state’s decision not to prosecute Olmert, but still voiced criticism of his conduct. (“The picture that emerges here is worrisome; the conduct described certainly warrants concern;”) “The investigation raised questions about the deal and the conduct of those involved… but the investigative material was insufficient to confirm the suspicions under examination” (the Justice Ministry in a statement regarding the closing of the case concerning the purchase of the house on Cremieux Street in Jerusalem).

Despite all these ethical warning signs, Olmert continued to freely navigate the corridors of power, carving out a gold mine for himself on his way to the top. The higher he climbed, the more his self-confidence grew and the more unbridled his arrogance became. Is it really any wonder? As a whole, Israeli society is incredibly forgiving of inappropriate conduct by public figures, and politicians in particular seem to feed off a sense of victimhood and solidarity whenever one of their own escapes by the skin of his teeth, without a criminal indictment, from the clutches of law enforcement.

Even after he was convicted in the Jerusalem District Court of breach of trust, and barely acquitted of the charges in the Talansky and Rishon Tours cases, Olmert was still being wooed by the Israeli elite and seriously flirting with politics.

When a society, and especially those who set its tone, shows no qualms about someone whose conduct is improper by any basic ethical standard, public figures like Olmert completely lose the ability to tell right from wrong and find themselves on the brink of going to jail. In their defense, they could argue that it was their environment that shaped them.

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