The events that took place in the Jerusalem District Court last week were quite extraordinary. For the first time in the history of the State of Israel, a former prime minister was in the dock to answer charges of corruption alleged to have taken place in a period before he became prime minister. On this occasion, the court found that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is innocent of the main corruption charges against him. Even though this decision sounds to be the end of a story, in many ways it is only the beginning of this story.
The headline that Olmert is innocent conceals the most important aspects of the story. A sitting prime minister was forced to resign his office, accused of corruption when in a former public office. Now, more than 3 years later, a court has decided that all he is guilty of is a relatively minor offence of breach of trust. It is for this that a prime minister was driven from office at a time when the country was fighting wars on a number of fronts, and facing a major economic crisis. Not only this. During the intervening 3 year period while the prosecution gathered its evidence, interviewed high-profile individuals under subpoena and brought the case to trial, the press found Olmert guilty and publicly castigated him at every opportunity. In one of the most dramatic U-turns seen in the modern press, it took 2 days after the verdict exonerating Olmert, for the newspapers to publish the results of a new public opinion poll. This poll shows that Olmert would muster more seats than current Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in the next year’s general election. This “zig zag” (as such political about-turns are known in Hebrew) seems quite astonishing. Has Olmert suddenly become the blue-eyed boy of the press after suffering such horrendous treatment at its hands?
State prosecutors have been forced to explain their actions in bringing this case to trial. There was more than a sniff of political motivation in evidence at the time that they announced their intention to indict Olmert three years ago. Now that they have lost the gamble, the country is rightly asking questions about what drove them to make allegations against a prime minister, which could ultimately not be made to stick. While the prosecution continue to defend their decision to bring this case to trial, they admit that the verdict will create great difficulty for future corruption charges against high-profile figures, in the event that these need to be brought. Even though our political landscape is far from perfect and seems to be riddled with bad behaviour and questionable judgement, there is perhaps no harm in forcing prosecuting lawyers to think 100 times before bringing about the downfall of public figures. Although I feel proud that Israeli democracy is strong enough to see even a sitting prime minister indicted, democracy also requires that the consequences of an acquittal be considered. This is particularly true of high-profile public figures.
The judges in the Olmert trial, while finding him not guilty, confirmed that unacceptable practices were taking place in his office. His bureau chief, Shula Zaken, was found guilty on corruption charges even though her boss was acquitted. The basis of his acquittal was simply the fact that the prosecution was unable to prove that he knew what was going on, rather than the fact that it did not happen. This serves to reinforce that practices of public officials in Israel leave a great deal to be desired. There can be no doubt that the questionable practices which were proven to have taken place in Olmert’s office when he was the Mayor of Jerusalem, are practices that are established in public life and occur in numerous public offices up and down the country. The message that such behaviour is unacceptable and needs to be stamped out was unfortunately completely drowned out by the headlines of Olmert’s acquittal.
Although Olmert has escaped from this sorry saga, he still faces corruption charges in the so-called “Holyland Affair” in a Tel Aviv court. Prosecution officials have already begun to re-examine the file of charges against him in this case, for fear that the charges could go the same way as the previous case. They are well aware of the enormous damage that they would suffer if they lose this case as well.
Olmert seems happy to escape the public glare for now, and slip into the background. There is no doubt, however, that this will not be allowed to continue for long – this is a man who has spent so many years in the public arena, that it seems unlikely that he will quietly fade away. Olmert has said he has no interest in returning to politics, but it is difficult to take these words at face value for now. The acquittal could not have come at a better time for the Kadima party. The party runs the risk of disbanding at the next election due to its poor showings. The prospect of Olmert returning to politics and heading up the party has created a great deal of interest, and even some expectation. There are those who see Olmert beating Bibi to become prime minister at the head of a Kadima government. The most recent opinion polls seem to support this. I find it difficult to see this euphoria lasting until the next election, and I still predict that Netanyahu will keep the hot seat. I do think that Kadima could be saved if Olmert returns to head up the party. If not, I believe it will be consigned to the dustbin filled with failed political parties
Image by jongklinger