Wall-to-wall corruption coverage
Hebrew media review

Wall-to-wall corruption coverage

The Israeli press has a field day reporting and expounding on Ehud Olmert's conviction for bribery

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert arrives in the Tel Aviv District Court on Monday, March 31, 2014 (photo credit: Dror Einav/POOL/Flash90)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert arrives in the Tel Aviv District Court on Monday, March 31, 2014 (photo credit: Dror Einav/POOL/Flash90)

Even though a Tel Aviv court found former prime minister Ehud Olmert guilty of accepting bribes in a high-profile corruption case, it’s the Israeli media that plays judge, jury and executioner for the former leader. The press has a field day commenting on and interpreting the significance of the ruling.

Across the board, all three print edition papers run the same photo of a crestfallen Olmert with a hand on an ashen cheek. “Corruption” is splattered all over the front page of Israel HayomYedioth Ahronoth opts for the no less damning headline “Corruption and falsehood.” Haaretz, ever straight-laced, writes “Olmert and senior public figures convicted of bribery.”

Yedioth Ahronoth reports that “it’s not every day that a court ruled in such a decisive fashion that a man who ruled the State of Israel is a liar and corrupt”; what it means to say is that Olmert was the first prime minister convicted on corruption charges. It calls the Holyland case “the biggest bribery and corruption case in the history of the state” and only mentions two paragraphs in that 12 other defendants were implicated besides Olmert (and only even farther down that nine of them were convicted as well). Justice David Rozen’s verdict “wiped the smiles off the faces of all 13 defendants” even though three got off the hook.

Israel Hayom waxes poetic in its reportage, almost echoing the opening monologue of The Big Lebowski, with the following lead: “There’s a moment, and this is the moment, in which the rule of law is entitled to raise its head and say in a loud, clear voice: ‘I was right. I vanquished a most critical bastion of organized vice. I laid a new milestone in the struggle to eradicate corruption in government.'” The paper calls Rozen a “courageous judge and upstanding mind.”

Haaretz devotes its first seven pages to reporting, rehashing and digesting the trial.

One metaphor churned repeatedly in the press is that of one of the mythical labors given to Hercules — cleansing the Augean stables of their filth. The expression “cleaning the stables” is employed by both Israel Hayom and Yedioth Ahronoth’s top op-eds, and the former rambles on for several paragraphs explaining the metaphor and comparing Rozen to the demigod himself. (Haaretz’s pundits forgo referencing Greek mythology in their print edition but, go figure, the same expression finds mention in one of their online articles.)

Haaretz’s editorial lauds the court’s decision as “a formative moment in the chronicles of the fight against public corruption in Israel.” It says that Olmert’s convictions in multiple corruption cases “cast a heavy shadow on his political career — from the Knesset bench through the Jerusalem mayorship and up to the prime minister’s seat.”

“They also illustrate how bribery penetrated the principal and most sensitive epicenters of decision making, and became a legitimate norm among the lofty public servants,” it says. The paper says the verdict doesn’t signal the end to the fight against corruption, but strengthens it. “The justice system must continue and take action to burn corruption out of Israeli governance, and fight it with the same rigor in the other corruption cases knocking on its doors.”

Sima Kadmon writes in Yedioth Ahronoth that the judge’s ruling was “thunder on a clear day,” parroting Olmert’s defense attorney’s statement after the trial. “The judge who determined [the defendants’] fate didn’t spare them and didn’t spare us. He took us on a 360˚ virtual tour of the dark world,” she writes.

She says the Israeli public was “truly, authentically shocked” by Rozen’s verdict, “and those who felt only schadenfreude and didn’t feel sorrow and a feeling of losing their way, alongside relief and even pride at the cleaning of the stables, don’t fully comprehend the power of the earthquake that happened here.” She says Olmert is symbolic of Israel as a whole: “a courageous state, talented and benevolent, which over the years became vain and drunk on power.”

Amos Regev, the editor-in-chief at Israel Hayom, writes a full-page op-ed in which he runs with the Augean stables metaphor for a large portion of it. “And like the same Hercules, Judge Rozen turned the hose of refreshing water on the filth and washed it out, and cleaned the mud, and lifted the masks and exposed the true faces of corruption.”

But Regev then launches a thousand ships of condemnation against his paper’s principal competitor: Yedioth Ahronoth. “‘Corrupt public and government institutions that are decaying and rotting,'” said Judge Rosen. And to this you can add corrupt media,” Regev says in his opening blow. “The evil empire of Noni Mozes [founder of Yedioth Ahronoth] has become a refuge for the evil and corrupt. Yedioth Ahronoth cultivated them, cushioned them, and protected them.”

Regev lambastes his competition for celebrating Olmert’s acquittal last year on breach of trust charges and for defending him to his final days. 

“Perhaps Yedioth Ahronoth is essentially Pravda?” Regev, editor-in-chief of a paper financed by an American billionaire and accused of being a shill for the Netanyahu administration, asks his readership. “Yes, Pravda of the bad guys, for the bad guys.”

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