Where Was Olmert?

Olmert had no idea what was going on between his close associate, her brother and the Tax Authority.

In the Central District Court in Petah Tikva, presided over by Judge Hila Gerstl, some pretty fascinating cases have been heard recently (though "heard" might be too broad a term, as not all are open to the public).

In terms of public significance, though, the most important is the case heard by the court's vice president, Judge Zecharia Caspi, which ended a week and a half ago in a plea bargain deal: the conviction of former Tax Authority director Jacky Matza on five counts of breach of trust and abetting bribery, based on his confession. The economic division at the State Prosecutor's Office - the division also handling Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's case that is expected to end in an indictment - summed up the case as follows: Matza gave importer Kobi Ben-Gur and his friend Yoram Karashi, both Likud activists, "a foothold in appointments in the Tax Authority in his capacity as someone knowledgeable about and familiar with the way they operate. As someone who himself had received help from them in advancing his appointment, Matza enabled the replication of this mode of operation at lower levels as well as the trickling of corruption into the system." The replication and trickling method: A person is appointed to a very high position and is obviously very grateful, infinitely grateful, to those who did him a good turn, and he in turn appoints senior - and middling and junior - officials, who know all to well to whom gratitude is due and to whom to do a favor should they be asked, directly or indirectly via one of the previous beneficiaries of the chain. Concerning what? Tax assessments. An income tax, property tax and value-added tax official can, in a single breath, make a debt disappear into thin air. The Tax Authority, with its 5,200 employees, is flesh of the Finance Ministry's flesh, and the person who heads it is one of the eight or nine top people at the ministry, with the rank of director general. It seems clear than an official this senior would have a direct line to the minister at all hours.

This was not the case at the Finance Ministry when Ehud Olmert was at the helm, according to Matza's revised indictment prepared as part of the plea bargain. About two months after Olmert assumed his position, in 2005, the position of director of the authority became vacant. Ben-Gur, who heard that Matza was interested in the job, arranged a meeting with Karashi and then "a preliminary interview" with Karashi's sister, Shula Zaken, Olmert's bureau chief.

Zaken was impressed with Matza. He was introduced to Olmert and won his support and eventually the government's approval. Ben-Gur and Karashi proceeded to shower him with demands to promote employees whose advancement they sought. They behaved as though the Tax Authority belong to them and was meant for their own personal gratification (hiring a woman friend who had "a close personal relationship" with Ben-Gur, for example) and business needs.

Matza was required to fulfill promises made by Ben-Gur and Karashi to move around and promote deputy directors, regional supervisors and directors of investigations. When he didn't follow through, Zaken blocked him and a list of appointments he proposed from reaching Olmert. It reached the point where he had to beg Karashi "to instruct Zaken, so he would be able to meet with the finance minister."

And where was Olmert? It's as though he never existed. He is not a defendant in this case. All the replication and trickling occurred right under his nose, when he was acting prime minister as well, and he didn't know about it. He had no idea what was going on between his close, loyal associate, now on trial in separate cases, her brother and the Tax Authority. After Olmert finished not knowing, Avraham Hirschson, whom he insisted upon appointing as his successor in the Finance Ministry after rejecting Amir Peretz, continued not knowing from the point where Olmert had left off. And where Hirschson is now, everyone knows. Where Olmert gets will be determined by the court.

But what does this say about the pretensions of Olmert and his emissaries in the press who depict him as a knowledgeable, astute statesman, an expert on details and an excellent prime minister whom Israel lost because of the petty malevolence of the police and the State Prosecutor's Office? Or was it that those who ran the country under Olmert and are so sorely missed today in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's wretched term were the sister, the brother and the importer?