“Let Justice Be Done” – Ehud Olmert and the Modern Greek Novel

The externals of ex Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s life are well known. They can be summarized in two paragraphs. Born in Israel to a prominent political family, in 1973 he joined the Israeli Knesset in the Likud party, where his father had also been elected and served before him. By 1988 he had joined Prime Minister Shamir’s cabinet. In 1993 he was elected mayor of Jerusalem and three years later, insured the excavation of the tunnel near the Wailing Wall, assertively reminding the world of Jerusalem’s ancient Jewish foundations (literally). In 2003 he became the Vice Premier in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That is part one.

Part two is the repudiation of almost everything he stood for until 2003. This includes a belief in pulling out of all of Judea and Samaria, breaking away from the Likud to form Kadima, emotionally invading Lebanon without a good plan, reopening negotiations with the PLO (with the above assumptions) and in one major return to his previous assertiveness, insuring that the IDF take out a nuclear reactor in Syria (some argue the military carried this out despite his leadership-but that is hard to prove).

In 2008 he resigned over accusations of corruption in the development of a Jerusalem apartment complex called Holy Land and which I have driven past many times. Now he has been served with a six-year jail sentence for corruption, which, if he is lucky, could be overturned pending his appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court.

If the allegations of corruption hold, the two parts of his career can be explained anthropologically as two parts of a cultural complex. I call this phenomenon the “complex of modern Mediterranean man” and which can be most clearly seen in the careers of Mediterranean politicians, from Portugal to Turkey. In the Olmert case and in many other cases such as the Katsav case (where the former President of the country sexually abused members of his female staff), Israel is no exception, as it is now fully part of the Mediterranean world.

The structure of this cultural complex is best understood and most easily comprehended by reading the classic Greek novel Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantsakis. The book (not the film) is about two Greeks, one who has been educated abroad and comes home to Crete to receive an inheritance. In doing so, he goes into business aspiring to the modern moral code of the 20th century European, equality before the law and fair dealing.

He works with Zorba, the other main character of the novel, who is a traditional Mediterranean man, who despises equality, believes that he is superior, not due to knowledge but to interpersonal cunning. Zorba is impulsive, pleasure loving, and is not above cutting corners. As a lovable liar and a cheat he is always trying to get his own way. In his eyes, his Westernized friend is, as we say in Hebrew, a “friar” or, as the Americans would say, a “sucker.”

The two characters are really one and the same as they allow Kazantsakis to show the reader the conundrum between the modernizing trend of Greeks and Greece in the 20th century, and the dead weight of the past, a way of dealing with things that the Greeks still derogatorily call “Levantine” and on occasion “Ottoman.” In the former case the word has the same meaning in modern Hebrew.

The world of Zorba is culturally if not politically similar to the world of the late Ottoman period of the land of Israel and which lasted until 1917. It was opposed by Zionists, who although they came from authoritarian Eastern Europe and the Islamic Middle East, wanted very much to create a society that was based on parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. To a large extent they have succeeded and Israel is now a flourishing democracy.

But Israeli society, before and after 1948, has always suffered from a residue of patron/client favoritism which in Hebrew slang is called “protectsia” or “ksharim.” This “reciprocal favor bank” often bends the law, something that is part and parcel of traditional Mediterranean society and, which is one of the greatest impediments to modernization and good governance in Israel and among its Arab neighbours. In the Arab world, it is so strong and deeply entrenched that it overrides almost any attempt at true parliamentary democracy. In Israel that is thankfully not the case.

The modern (usually northern) Mediterranean politician begins his or her career with a set of values that comprise theory, the abstract, the ideal, wide aspiration, rhetoric, diffusion, principle, logic, system, dogma/ideology and love for the remote past (just think of the ideals of ancient Greece, or Republican Rome that inspire so many modern European and English speaking states).

In Olmert’s case he started his career as a supporter of the classical Likud conservative Zionism, a clear understanding that there is only one Jewish state, that it was recreated after two thousand years of exile and that it is under extreme threat. Olmert had an abiding aspiration to protect it at all costs, with a gift for public speaking to support his beliefs, with that ubiquitous and winning smile of his, a desire to benefit all Israelis, and expressing a coherent ideology and a deep understanding that the people of Israel are a minority who will no longer be treated as the second class citizens of Europe and Islam. His early days as a politician showed his commitment to a Jewish state where the government will serve its citizens equally and, demand that the world treats the state of Israel as its equal. That was Olmert, Part One.

But then those old Ottoman, Mediterranean temptations kicked in. As Mayor of Jerusalem, the most contested city in the world, Olmert is confronted with the immediate issues of the day in all their particularity. He believes that he sees ‘reality,’ in the need to build Jerusalem, and he links that with his own financial future, the Holy Land Project, fusing the public with his personal well being. As his energies become more and more involved in using the public purse for private gain, he becomes a patron and establishes a network of clients. He becomes secretive. He improvises and loses his love of the ancient past, substituting it for his love of the recent past and present, his own history, his family’s reputation as “founders of the state” and which then becomes fused with his immediate circle of family, friends, and political cronies, in short his network of clients.

In this second part of his career he has become the traditional Mediterranean man. He has become an Effendi, a Bey, a Sheikh or as they say in Italian, a “Don”. Simply put, he has become everything that his father stood against and that the younger Olmert imitated in the first part of his career. When accused of corruption he insists that he is innocent and, despite all the murky documents and confessions of former employees such as Shula Zaken, a client who turned on him in court, he insists that he is entirely innocent. From a political being who began his career with a clear idea of right and wrong, he ends his career as a caricature of a Mediterranean chief who is more concerned with his “honor and shame.” He has gone from Zionist modernizer to an Ottoman throwback. He has gone from Zorba’s Westernized friend and has become Zorba.

Patron client networks, where the public purse fills the pockets of the people who are elected to serve the public, are something that exists in all kinds of governments. But in the Mediterranean it is pervasive and time honored and, connected to the fact that everyone has an extended family. In this regard, although Israel is miles ahead of other Mediterranean countries when it comes to the rule of law and fair governance, there is always the political temptation to treat colleagues as family and family and friends as colleagues, which inevitably leads to backroom deals and payoffs. Such seems to have been the case with Olmert.

Whether or not Olmert’s conviction is upheld after an appeal to the supreme court of Israel, I sincerely hope that the Israel judiciary will make public the tenders and bids that must have been forwarded to the government or municipality of Jerusalem, before the Holy Land project was built, to make sure that it was not one unholy mess. Citizens deserve no less.

If Olmert made even 100 dollars out of the deal, he deserves his six years. The Supreme Court may set him free for insufficient evidence or, for a range of possible technicalities, for it is often the case that the guilty man goes free in a parliamentary democracy if there is “reasonable doubt” and this happens often in Israel. Not all paper trails are free of ambiguity, and so much corruption is based on verbal deals and handshakes, over a glass of arak or whiskey. Note that throughout Kazantsakis novel, Zorba rarely writes anything down, and so he cannot be held accountable.

If Olmert or his cronies made not a shekel out of the deal, and the tender for the Holy Land housing complex is seen to have been transparent and competitive, he should go free. If not, then let justice be done and seen to be done.

About the Author
Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large. Having spent more than twenty years living and working in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, he offers readers a cross cultural perspective on the pressing issues of our times. He has contributed numerous articles to the National Post, the Globe and Mail, the New York Post, the Brooklyn Rail, the American Thinker, Books in Canada, Minerva Magazine and is a Contributing Editor at the New English Review.