This week former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced to an additional eight months in prison for – literally – accepting cash bribes in brown envelopes. Last May he was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for bribery an corrupution during his previous incarnation as Mayor of Jerusalem and Trade Minister.
You may wonder why, in spite of this short string of convictions, Olmert is still a free(ish) man. All I can say is that he is a Houdini in a wizard-favourable environment. On the other hand, when his appeals are overturned, he will not benefit from “time served”.
At this point, reader, I must confess I once dated him. And by “once” I mean “not twice”. In was in late 1969 and it was a blind date. He was an aspiring young politician, I was a broadcast journalist. Then as now, Olmert was highly intelligent, with a sharp legal mind. It was his raw ambition which I found fatally unattractive, but I watched his career with interest.
Olmert was the accidental PM. Arik Sharon made him his deputy mainly to force him to toe the line. But when Sharon fell into a coma in 2004 (he finally died in 2012), Olmert inherited the job without having to bother with an election which he would not have won.
His legacy as PM includes the ill-fated adventure in Lebanon in August 2006, which killed over 1,000 people, mostly civilians, devastated civil infrastructure and displaced approximately one million Lebanese. He then ordered the Molten Lead attack on Gaza in December 2008, which again left over 1,000 Palestinian civilians dead, many of them, as in Lebanon, children. The use with impunity of cluster bombs in the former and White Phosphorous in the latter – both banned by International Law – taught Israel that it could get away with war crime. The lesson led inexorably to the Gaza massacres of summer 2014 and bodes ill for the future.
I always suspected Olmert would go far in politics. What I didn’t expect was that his political ambition was to evolve into an insatiable appetite for First Class travel, five-star suites, fat cigars, sharp suits and designer watches. Yet it was these tastes, rather than what were arguably his war crimes, that brought him down. In early 2009 he was forced to resign as PM to face one corruption investigation and trial after another.
In 2012Olmert was finally convicted of breach of trust. On the Cash in Brown Envelopes charge the judges (there are no juries in Israel) decided the prosecution had failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, and he did not get jail time.
Being Ehud Olmert, he decided that the result was a “vindication” and actively sought a comeback to frontline politics. Having been a right-wing firebrand, he was now hinting, to his donors and fundraisers abroad, that only he could deliver the compromises which would bring peace to the Middle East.
He continued along this line even while his second trial was ongoing. This time the charge was that, while Mayor of Jerusalem (before he joined the Government), he took bribes from wealthy and well-connected developers for a monstrous scheme on a hilltop overlooking Jerusalem, formerly occupied by the historic and much-loved Holyland Hotel. For this he received six years custodial.
In the meanwhile the prosecutors were having a go at his Chief of Staff, Shula Zaken. A vain but loyal employee, she was offered a plea bargain which involved turning state evidence against her convicted criminal boss. Her new testimony sealed his Brown Envelopes conviction by a judge who clearly did not believe a word Olmert said.
For me the Olmert chapter in Israeli history confirms my worst fears about the country I left 43 years ago. He created a great conundrum: do you support a greedy crook because you think he may be able to negotiate peace? In Olmert’s case, his downfall resulted in the rise and rise of an even worse regime which combines crooked enterprises with popular hate and warmongering.
Moreover, today’s political criminals may never be brought to book because Prime Minister Netanyahu is shamelessly seeking to undermine Israel’s independent judiciary and bring it to heel – his heel. His cigars are as fat as Olmert’s ever were, and who needs brown envelopes when an American casino billionaire is able to fund a daily newspaper devoted to spinning you and all that you do?
Cry, my beloved country. You have fallen among thieves.