It is hard to exaggerate the depth of former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s fall from grace. From a high point in May 2006 when he was sworn in as Israel’s 12th prime minister, the former Jerusalem mayor faced public excoriation for his handling of the Second Lebanon War, saw his favorability ratings drop into the single digits, slogged through a seemingly endless string of scandals and corruption indictments, resigned from the premiership in 2009 to defend himself in a series of trials, and finally, on Monday morning, received a devastating conviction for bribery, one that could conceivably carry a 20-year prison sentence.
Though an appeal may still reach the Supreme Court, Olmert will now go down in history as the first Israeli prime minister ever convicted of corruption.
Pundits immediately turned to the political ramifications of the conviction. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces few convincing opponents, and now sees a potential future contender for the premiership almost certainly removed from the running.
Olmert’s removal may also strengthen the position of leaders seeking to claim the centrist crown he once held at the helm of Kadima, including his former deputy, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua), and former communications minister Moshe Kahlon, who is gathering allies for a new centrist party.
But such punditry is largely beside the point. Olmert has been out of Israeli politics for over five years. His political fortunes, despite the fevered speculation of pundits and some politicians, could scarcely have recovered even from past scandals attached to his name. Even Livni, who may have hoped for his return as a powerful backer of her bid to lead a new Kadima-like party in the last elections, quickly gave up on him and launched Hatnua.
Israel’s politics are not the main issue in Olmert’s years-long saga of trials and investigations, but rather its public culture — and the distressing sense among Israelis that Olmert is merely the most iniquitous example of a generation of leaders who saw the public’s trust as their private inheritance.
Olmert’s Kadima party has seen six of its leaders convicted and three more investigated. In the three years of Olmert’s term as premier, president Moshe Katsav was forced to resign to face charges of rape, finance minister Avraham Hirchson resigned to face charges of stealing funds from the Histadrut labor federation, and justice minister Haim Ramon faced a sexual assault trial for forcibly kissing a young soldier in the Prime Minister’s Office just minutes before entering the cabinet meeting in which he would vote to launch the Second Lebanon War. All were eventually convicted, and two were given prison sentences.
Bribery, theft, even sexual assault — not to mention a handful of convictions for illegal political appointments and other lesser crimes — seems to be the legacy of a generation of Israeli politicians, many of whom still serve in Israel’s political system.
It is a sobering thought that three city mayors who were removed from their positions for corruption last year were reelected to their posts in the October municipal elections. Or that Shas leader Aryeh Deri, convicted and imprisoned in 2000 for taking bribes, once again leads the party.
“The wheels of justice turn slowly, but they turn, and, at the end, find the truth,” opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Labor) declared Monday after Olmert’s verdict was announced. Herzog railed against “the greedy, the corrupt, and those who undermine the ethical integrity of the public service.”
But Herzog, too, once memorably exercised his right to remain silent when he was investigated in 1999 in connection with alleged campaign funding irregularities on the part of then-prime minister Ehud Barak.
The list goes on and on, and all the investigations, resignations and trials are conducted in open view of an increasingly dismayed public — with half of Israelis now saying corruption is increasing and 79% saying Israel’s political parties are the most corrupt institutions in the country.
In part, the scandal-ridden politics of recent years reflect not an increase in corruption, but rather in awareness. Norms have changed. Membership in a party was once a prerequisite for many government jobs. Until the 1990s, MKs could work as attorneys for corporate clients while simultaneously serving as lawmakers regulating the companies they represented. It was only in recent years that Israeli prosecutors, journalists and the public have begun to expect and demand a cleaner politics.
Yet even as standards for clean governance have risen, Israeli society has grown wealthier, vastly increasing the potential benefits of corruption — or, as countless politicians have argued in their defense in recent years, of the “the old ways of doing business.”
One of the more disconcerting facts to emerge from preliminary readings of the verdict on Monday suggests that the old ways of doing business may still be endemic to Israel’s political system.
Recently retired state attorney Moshe Lador, the official responsible for Olmert’s indictment in the Holyland case, noted on Monday that the case would not have been cracked without a single witness, Shmuel Dachner, who approached police in 2010 and told them he had bribed Olmert when the latter served as mayor of Jerusalem. (Dachner passed away in 2013.)
“The Holyland case looked like an existing issue [worth investigating], but we had no evidence,” Lador told Channel 2 News on Monday. “Everyone saw this [real estate] development…and there were those who raised the alarm, but the system didn’t know how to move ahead with the [investigation]. Suddenly the witness, Dachner, who was accompanied by excellent lawyers…gave us the opportunity to solve this case.”
Many politicians and journalists are congratulating Israel’s legal and judicial systems for the conviction. Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich called Monday “an important day for the rule of law.”
From the other side of the political spectrum, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party, said Israel “has taken a big step forward today toward a more moral leadership,” and “has cleansed itself of corruption.”
Yet the overwhelming fact remains that the most dramatic corruption conviction in Israel’s history would not have been possible, according to the testimony of the most senior state attorney who prosecuted the case, without the initiative of a single person involved in the crime.
One can’t help but wonder how much corruption continues unhindered and undiscovered because additional accomplices prefer not to come forward and acknowledge their crimes of their own accord.