Zaken, Lies and Audiotape

Ehud Olmert's former right-hand woman, Shula Zaken, may have been motivated by revenge, but her plea-bargain agreement is a price worth paying.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Shula Zaken after the verdict was delivered in the Holyland trial.
Shula Zaken after the verdict was delivered in the Holyland trial.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

After years of him mocking the investigators and prosecutors, the investigation into former prime minister and convicted criminal Ehud Olmert continues. This week, the head of Israel Police’s Fraud Investigations Unit, Ephraim Bracha, and his deputy, Eran Kamin, will continue exploring just how much trouble Olmert’s mouth has gotten him into. For decades, his loyal bureau assistant, Shula Zaken, lay between Olmert and any evidence of his involvement. But it was while talking to her, with no buffer between them and a hidden recording device in place, that he implicated himself for disruption, deposition and harassment.

In the space between “Jealousy is cruel as the grave” (Song of Songs) and “Satan has not yet created Vengeance for the blood of a small child” (Bialik), English playwright William Congreve wrote, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” This controversial generalization partially describes the current “Shula-gate,” when Olmert scorned Zaken: Satan has not yet created Vengeance in the form of a recording device.”

Shula Zaken’s 2012 was an eventful one. That February, she was convicted in the Tax Authority scandal (when she exploited her connections with Olmert to get associates appointed to senior positions), and that June was sentenced to four months’ community service. In July 2012, she was convicted in the Rishon Tours affair, and on September 24 was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment and a 40,000 shekel fine. She was represented by attorney Micha Patman. When the mysterious funds for paying her legal fees dried up, she hired public defenders Ofer Bartal and Gilad Cohen. The prosecution, hoping to provide some company for state’s witness Shmuel Dechner in the Holyland trial, offered Zaken a generous deal – 11 months in return for admitting her crimes, without incriminating Olmert, or any others facing charges.

On September 10, 2012, attorney Cohen met the prosecution team, led by Yoni Tadmor, for the first time. The outline of the plea-bargain agreement was created by Bartal and Cohen during secret meetings that took place on Friday nights, at the Herut home of district prosecutor Liat Ben Ari Sheweky. Just hours after the agreement was forged, though, Zaken astounded her representatives with angry remorse and rejected the deal. What ruined her spirit? What upset her? She wouldn’t say.

In late February 2014, with the noose tightening around her neck, Zaken – with the encouragement of her family – tried to revive the deal. Questioning by the police revealed that her testimony, including the pressure she was facing, was too little to incorporate so late into the proceedings. Sheweky, a fierce negotiator, was for the deal in principle but against it in actuality. A notice from Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rozen on March 3, that his ruling would be handed down by the end of that month, sent Bartal and Cohen to meet in Jerusalem with State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, as well as Sheweky and her colleagues. Last fall, Bartal was one of Nitzan’s competitors. Now though, Bartal told him he wasn’t jealous of him having to face such a decision.

As they walked through the hallways of the Justice Ministry after leaving Nitzan’s office, Zaken’s defense lawyers called her in a last-ditch effort to find supporting evidence. She racked her brain, and hesitantly replied yes, without understanding the power of the ace up her sleeve. After the first talk aimed at convincing her, she said, her family had asked for a full report. Having difficulty remembering the details, she began recording the next talks with Olmert to play for her family. Could that help? There, on the steps of the Justice Ministry building, Bartal and Cohen stopped to lean on the railing and recover from what they’d just heard. The police thoroughly checked the recordings and the recording device in a crime lab. Experts ruled that the talks were real, and not edited.

Olmert’s attorneys can expect a whirlwind questioning, as their other major client, Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, is accused of bribing Bracha and offering to help in the ongoing investigation against Menashe Arviv, the former commander of the police fraud investigation unit who quit over graft accusations.

In order to live up to Judge Rozen’s expectations, Zaken must reveal everything she knows about Olmert’s misdeeds. Give-take – especially because pulling out of the deal will incite other criminals to do the same. That’s a worthy price for society to pay, in order to prevent other Olmerts.

Shula Zaken and Ehud Olmert in court.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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