For a former PM, vindication. For Israel, unanswerable questions of what might have been

For a former PM, vindication. For Israel, unanswerable questions of what might have been

The case against Olmert changed modern Israeli history. And for now, the case against Olmert has not stuck

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Olmert in the Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)
Olmert in the Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

For Ehud Olmert, the verdict is decisive, a vindication, a triumph. He has been cleared of the main, substantive charges against him. He did not illegally accept cash-stuffed envelopes from an American supporter who then turned against him. And he did not defraud a range of admirable charities and institutions by double-billing them for trips abroad and profiting from the proceeds. The breach of trust matter on which he was found guilty was relatively marginal, bureaucratic — a minor “procedural” failure, as he put it, and he would of course learn the lesson.

For the state prosecution, the picture is grim, though it put on its bravest face. The verdict was a surprise, the Jerusalem prosecutor Eli Abarbanel acknowledged. But the state prosecuting authorities had acted appropriately, he insisted. They had not gone after Olmert personally. They had filed the appropriate charges. And the court, as was its right, had found the most serious allegations unproven.

But for the Israeli public the picture is muddy and troubling, and the open questions are profound, consequential and, in many respects, unanswerable. Was a democratically elected prime minister hounded out of office four years ago by an over-zealous or even politicized state prosecuting authority? What to make of Olmert’s own assertions that right-wing American Jews, dismayed that he was on the brink of a historic diplomatic breakthrough with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, conspired to expedite his downfall? And what to expect, now, from a battered state prosecution hierarchy that, having failed to make the most serious charges stick against its most prominent subject, must determine how to proceed in various other highly sensitive cases, notably including the long-running corruption allegations against another top-level politician, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman?

As lawyers and academics and politicians and all manner of self-interested parties waded into the public relations battle after the verdict was announced on Tuesday morning, some of the major details, and many of the minor nuances, were already being skewed or lost.

Among them, there is the multi-storied matter of the ongoing corruption case against Olmert and others over the Jerusalem skyline-defiling Holyland construction project. The former prime minister was understandably elated Tuesday, but his future still hinges on the verdict in that affair, which insiders say has many months to run. Olmert’s return to public life requires the clearing of two more hurdles: first, that the judges, passing sentence in September in the breach of trust conviction, do not jail him for three months or more and do not determine that the conviction constitutes an incident of “moral turpitude”; and second, that in the Holyland case, too, he emerges innocent or, at the very least, without a conviction at the level of moral turpitude. In the first case, most analysts Tuesday said they believed Olmert has little to fear. As for the second, only a fool would speculate.

Then there is the assertion that, by securing the court’s permission for one of Olmert’s main accusers, American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky, to give evidence atypically early in the investigation against him, the prosecutors prematurely sealed the then-prime minister’s political fate. In truth, Talansky’s testimony did not require Olmert’s resignation. It was his political rivals, most prominently Ehud Barak, who issued the ultimatums that accelerated his fall. Still, the Talansky affair, together with the Rishon Tours double-billing allegations, destroyed Olmert’s prime ministership. And the fact is, those charges were not proven.

As for the question of whether the prime minister’s ouster aborted a process that would have yielded a strategic breakthrough with the Palestinians, there can be no definitive assessment. Olmert certainly believes he was close to a deal. Some of those who were directly involved in the negotiations, including on the Israeli side, rather doubt it.

Abbas, according to politicians as senior and credible as then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and journalists as reliable as the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl, made plain that even Olmert’s unprecedentedly generous terms — relinquishing the entire West Bank with one-for-one land swaps, dividing Jerusalem into Israeli and Palestinian sovereign areas, relinquishing sovereignty in the Old City to an international trusteeship, and finding symbolic and practical solutions to the refugee issue — were not acceptable to him. The PA chief himself, in an interview just last week, denied the rejectionist quotes attributed to him by both Rice and Diehl. He also made plain that he hadn’t accepted Olmert’s offer, however, and had instead formulated counter-proposals of his own.

Reasonable speculation might suggest that Olmert and Abbas would have sparred diplomatically through 2008 and into 2009 if Olmert had not been forced out and early elections called. Perhaps they might have agreed on terms; more likely they would not. If they had reached a deal, opinion polls at the time and since would indicate that the Israeli public would have been unlikely to accept it. But of course there’s no telling for sure. The case against Olmert intervened, and history unfolded along a different path. Tzipi Livni failed to retain a Kadima-led government. Elections were held. Benjamin Netanyahu came to power.

Olmert was statesmanlike in his first public comments after the verdict was delivered on Tuesday. As he made clear, however, Israelis will be seeing more of him in the coming days. The way he chooses to unload the emotions and bitternesses that have built up over the years since he left office will go a long way toward determining the ongoing perception of this extraordinarily high-stakes affair.

Dvora Chen, a former senior state prosecutor, acknowledged Tuesday that Olmert’s acquittal, on the main charges he was forced from office to answer, must be a source of some “public discomfort.” In a protracted process that has never been notably short on hyperbole, that was quite the understatement.

The case against Olmert changed modern Israeli history. And for now, the case against Olmert has not stuck.

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