“Only in Israel” is a cliché that’s often uttered in an attempt to distinguish the experience of a life lived here from that of anywhere else. Many of these observations have degenerated into rather lazy stereotyping. For example, it’s “only in Israel” that the bus drivers and taxi drivers read and quote Spinoza and Maimonides; it’s “only in Israel” that you’ll find M-16-toting babes in bikinis; it’s “only in Israel” that bank robbers kiss the mezuzah as they leave with their loot.
In recent days, however, Israel has genuinely set itself apart, with the news that former prime minister Ehud Olmert is considering a political comeback, despite his recent conviction for breach of trust and his forthcoming trial on bribery charges, to challenge Binyamin Netanyahu in a general election next year.
The disgraced former premier is evidently counting on the very vagueness of the “breach of trust” conviction as a means to whitewash a documented pattern of lies and dirty deeds that has led many to regard him as the most corrupt politician in Israeli history. A summary of Olmert’s greatest hits:
Holyland Affair: Olmert was charged with receiving bribes, during his term as mayor of Jerusalem, to speed up a controversial residential development, known as Holyland, in the heart of the city. Olmert denies any involvement in the affair.
Investment Center: In 2012, Olmert was given a one-year suspended jail sentence and a 75,300-shekel fine for breaching the public’s trust in connection with his conduct as minister of trade and industry. This followed his conviction in July.
Talansky Case: Olmert was charged with fraud, breach of trust and concealing fraudulent earnings in connection with donations received from an American financier, Moshe Talansky. Olmert admitted taking money, but said it was legal donations to fund his campaigns for re-election as mayor of Jerusalem and for the leadership of the Likud party. Olmert was acquitted of the charges in 2012.
Rishon Tours: Olmert was charged with concealing fraudulent earnings, fraud, breach of trust, fraudulent tax evasion and fraudulent registration of corporate documents in connection with claims that he over-billed the Israeli state and Jewish charities for trips abroad. Olmert was found not guilty of the charges in 2012.
Political Appointments: In 2007, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz ordered a police investigation into allegations that Olmert, when he held the jobs of trade minister, communications minister and finance minister, had improperly appointed associates from the Likud party to posts on government bodies. In 2010, the justice ministry said state prosecutors were considering indicting Olmert in the affair, but that he was entitled to a hearing before being formally charged.
Apparently, unique to Western-style democracies around the world, being convicted of a criminal offense in Israel does not necessarily mean the end of one’s public life.
In the United States and Great Britain, public figures who did not serve any time and were accused of transgressions that are much less severe – such as having a mistress or using the services of a call girl – resigned from their posts immediately and never returned to politics.
“Only in Israel” does a conviction serve as a sort of entry pass to a successful political comeback.
Indeed, something is rotten in the state of Israel. Ehud Olmert is but the latest in a long list of convicted Israeli politicians. Former president Moshe Katsav was convicted of raping and sexually assaulting former female assistants. Another former president, Ezer Weizman, escaped prosecution on bribery and nondisclosure charges (though he was forced to resign in shame) only because the statute of limitations had elapsed. Former finance minister Avraham Hirchson and former labor and welfare minister Shlomo Benizri were convicted on charges of corruption.
And the list has only grown in recent years.
Over the last few days, a rogues’ gallery of demonstratively ineffective politicians, united mainly by their desire to unseat Netanyahu, has ginned up support for an Olmert revival. Comprised mostly of current and former Kadima members who have all read the recent polls that predict a dramatic drop of support for the party Olmert once led in the upcoming general elections, the likes of Haim Ramon and Shaul Mofaz are desperate to rebrand Olmert as the last, best hope for attaining a two-state solution.
The fate of Israel in the hands of a criminal? Ehud Olmert abused the public’s trust while holding various positions of power. While there are no legal obstacles to him jumping back into the political fray, the moral and ethical implications are enormous.
Allowing such a man, whose conduct is contrary to community standards of justice, honesty or good morals, to hold ANY public office is tantamount to lowering the flag on an Israeli political system based on accountability and the rule of law and raising in its place the flag of Sicily.