The sentence meted out on Tuesday to former prime minister Ehud Olmert in the Holyland bribery case was stunning in its severity.

Six years’ imprisonment, a fine of NIS 1 million (nearly $300,000), a formal declaration of “moral turpitude” that prevents him from returning to public service for years to come, and the permanent stain of disgrace for a man who once held his country’s most powerful post — all these and more are contained in the sentence delivered by Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rozen on Tuesday in one of the most scathing punishments ever given by an Israeli court to a public servant.

And Olmert was not alone. Prison sentences ranging from three to seven years were meted out to six more individuals convicted alongside Olmert in the case. It was, in judicial terms, an unprecedented condemnation of the defendants and the crimes of which they were convicted.

It is profoundly significant, then, that at Tuesday’s sentencing the presiding judge, one of the most respected in Israel’s judiciary, focused not on the details of the crimes, but on their social consequences.

“The crime of bribery pollutes and corrupts the public service to its core,” Rozen wrote in the 64-page sentence. “This crime, by its very nature, does not lie still, but spreads, gnaws at, and brings ruin to public and governing institutions and frameworks. This corrosion, which penetrates and roots itself deep in the public service, radiates rot and atrophy throughout.”

Rozen’s impassioned homily on the dangers of corruption continues unabated for several pages: “One who takes a bribe is comparable to a traitor, to one who embezzles and betrays the trust he is given, trust without which no well-administered public service can be established or maintained.”

The message is unmissable — and it is key to understanding the reasoning behind the unprecedented punishments laid out in the ensuing pages.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert at his sentencing at the Tel Aviv District Court, Tuesday, May 13, 2014 (photo credit: Ami Shooman/Flash90)

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert at his sentencing at the Tel Aviv District Court, Tuesday, May 13, 2014 (photo credit: Ami Shooman/Flash90)

On March 31, the day of Olmert’s conviction, the country’s former top prosecutor, retired state attorney Moshe Lador, offered a dismaying account of how the Holyland case was finally cracked by investigators. Everything depended on the testimony of a single person, Lador explained: businessman Shmuel Dachner, who approached police investigators in 2010 and told them he had bribed Olmert when the latter served as mayor of Jerusalem.

“The Holyland case looked like an existing issue [worth investigating], but we had no evidence,” Lador said. “…There were those who raised the alarm, but the system didn’t know how to move ahead with the [investigation]. Suddenly the witness, Dachner… gave us the opportunity to solve this case.”

Financial crimes of the sort Olmert was convicted of are notoriously difficult to uncover, and even harder to prove. The worst corruption case ever prosecuted in Israel, we now know, was uncovered by a happy accident: one of the conspirators, for reasons ultimately known only to him, decided to come forward and, at his own initiative, bring the whole masterfully-hidden edifice crashing down.

For the state prosecutors trying the case and the judge presiding over it, it was this aspect of the Holyland scandal that constituted its most important fact. Outwardly, the successful prosecution of a former prime minister appears to be a dramatic success for Israeli law enforcement, unmistakable testimony to the courage and egalitarianism underlying the country’s justice system.

But those close to the case have learned a different lesson: that corruption is excruciatingly difficult to uproot through the limited means of law enforcement. In the past decade alone, a finance minister went to prison for theft and a president for rape. A minister who once sat in prison for accepting bribes, MK Aryeh Deri, stands once again at the head of a major Knesset faction. Last week, a mayor of a major city, Bat Yam’s Shlomo Lahiani, accepted a plea bargain in his corruption trial that will see him deposed from city hall and possibly also imprisoned in the coming months.

Do these cases suggest public corruption is being successfully uprooted, or merely that it remains widespread?

The palpable sense of frustration that pervades the state prosecution and judicial system indicates that many believe it is the latter. Indeed, with 79% of Israelis saying political parties are Israel’s most corrupt public institutions, and over half insisting public corruption is increasing, the public appears to be very much on the side of the judges.

It is in this atmosphere that Judge David Rozen delivered his scathing sentences. Lacking efficient and decisive means to uproot corruption, Israel’s judges and prosecutors are seeking to achieve the same effect through deterrence.

You may not get caught, the Tel Aviv District Court told Israel’s politicians and public servants on Tuesday. But if you are, expect no mercy, even if you are the prime minister.