A modest suggestion: That Jerusalem’s Holyland complex be renamed Olmert Heights to identify it as a monument to sleaze.

Close to 40 years ago, when I began covering municipal affairs for The Jerusalem Post, I discovered that meetings of the District Planning Commission were closed to the press. The commission made do with press releases.

When I telephoned a senior figure there for information, I mentioned that I had worked for newspapers in the US where public access to planning meetings was considered basic to an open society. “They’re boring,” countered the official. “Just call me after a meeting and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”

A couple of years later he was tried and convicted for a malfeasance connected to his public office. I saw him again a few years later, not long after his release from prison, a sad figure walking down a street in Rehavia.

The meetings of the Local Planning Commission were open to the public and the municipality was even obliged by law to place notices in two newspapers to alert the public about upcoming agendas. I was surprised at the paucity of public attendance until I learned that the notices were published in the Hungarian-language newspaper Uj Kelet, printed in Tel Aviv, and an Arabic-language newspaper. And in small print, just in case.

The Holyland buildings suddenly appeared on the Jerusalem skyline a few years ago with hardly any public notice at all. More massive than the building complex itself was the corruption written all over it. What was most breathtaking was the audacity of those behind the project who seemed utterly confident that they could inflict this poke in the eye on the landscape and get away with it.

Veteran Jerusalemites fondly remember the old Holyland Hotel, a modest building tucked out of sight near the edge of the ridge extending south from Bayit Vegan. It had a lovely courtyard where weddings and bar-mitzvas were held. It was also the site of the model of Second Temple Jerusalem by Prof. Michael Avi-Yonah, which echoed the hotel’s name. (The model was moved to the Israel Museum after the hotel was demolished.) It was the property’s heir, together with moneymen and influence peddlers, who persuaded city officials to approve the symbol of unbridled greed that now dominates southern Jerusalem.

Herod's Temple model at the Holyland Hotel in 1998 (Photo: P-D, Wiki Commons)

Herod’s Temple model at the Holyland Hotel in 1998 (Photo: P-D, Wiki Commons)

Back in the 1970s, when there was still shame, architects from the Municipal Planning Department – mostly young Anglo-Saxons; together with vigorous civic groups and an alert press, managed to block a series of building projects that would have changed Jerusalem’s skyline. A sketch by planner Art Kutcher showed a proposed high-rise Hyatt hotel on French Hill looming brutally over the Dome of the Rock. The sketch was published in The Jerusalem Post and Ma’ariv the Friday before it was to be approved by the District Planning Commission. The plan was killed over the weekend by the Interior Ministry and the hotel would be built instead with four stories.

Another sketch showed a planned 22-story annex for the King David Hotel. Even before the public outcry, the chairman of the Dan Hotel Corporation, Yekutiel Federman, cancelled the project. “I wouldn’t find peace in my grave if people said I ruined Jerusalem,” said Federman, who was not a Jerusalemite. He did not wish, he said, to antagonize those trying to preserve the spirit of the city. “I’m not a religious man but I’m a civilized man.”

The Holyland gang, whose members were unburdened by Federman’s sensibilities, outflanked or intimidated whistle blowers.

There was a recent attempt in the Knesset to curtail the press further by raising fines for libel to prohibitive levels. “A journalist must report the truth,” said MK Meir Sheetrit, a candidate for the presidency and a sponsor of the bill, “especially when it comes to a person‘s honor and reputation.” Sheetrit was the subject of media interest in the early 1990s over his allegedly opulent life style when he was the Jewish Agency treasurer. MK Shelly Yachimovich, pointing to the country’s honor and reputation, called the proposed law “a lethal weapon in the hands of the wealthy and the strong conglomerates that want to cut off investigative journalism.”

Last week’s court verdict could, hopefully, constitute a watershed. The public has always understood that there was corruption in the system but the blatancy of the Holyland affair and the complicity of Olmert, a future prime minister, has made virtually every public official in the country, local or national, of high rank or low, suspect. Anyone with access to the public trough is now viewed as potentially guilty until proven innocent. Civic groups and the media must prepare themselves for battle against the rot that is endangering the country.

Abraham Rabinovich can be reached by email at: abra@netvision.net.il