Ehud Olmert, corruption and the ghosts of Prime Ministers past

Ehud Olmert

Ehud Olmert

For my Israeli readers I have no need to explain the background of “the Olmert case”, as the corruption trial of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is commonly referred to. For those of you who are not familiar with the the case (or rather, cases), here is a very short summary in the Jerusalem Post:

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday was acquitted of central corruption charges against him in the Rishon Tours and Talansky affairs, and was found guilty of breach of trust in the Investment Center affair.

In one of the most significant corruption trials in Israel’s history, Olmert was being tried on three main charges of corruption – dubbed the Rishon Tours affair, the Talansky or cash envelopes affair and the Investment Center affair. The indictment spanned events that allegedly took place during 2002-2006, first during Olmert’s tenure as mayor of Jerusalem and later when he served as a government minister.

Other charges listed on the indictment included that Olmert failed to disclosed donations from US businessman Joe Almaliah to the state comptroller.

Olmert’s former bureau chief Shula Zaken, accused of aiding Olmert in relation to the Talansky and Rishon Tours affairs, and also of wiretapping conversations in Olmert’s bureau, was convicted on two counts of fraud and breach of trust in the Rishon Tours affair.

[...]

The Rishon Tours charge alleged that Olmert double-billed various nonprofit organizations for overseas flights, and used the extra money – which the prosecution alleges totaled over $92,000 – to pay for private trips for himself and his family, via his travel agency Rishon Tours.

In the so-called Talansky Affair, Olmert was charged with receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from American businessman Morris Talansky.

The Investment Center affair relates to the period when Olmert was minister of industry, trade and labor. The prosecution contended that Olmert granted illegal favors to Uri Messer – Olmert’s longtime friend and former partner – who applied to the Investment Center for state grants and other benefits.

[...]

Even though Olmert was cleared of blame, his legal troubles are far from over. In a completely unrelated trial in the Tel Aviv District Court, Olmert is charged alongside 12 other individuals – one of them Zaken – with corruption in connection with the Holyland Affair.

I would suggest you read the link above about the Holyland Affair if you wish to learn more about the convoluted dealings of the former PM. In (very) short:

The Holyland trial, which deals with the large Jerusalem construction project of the same name, is a massive corruption case involving allegations against Olmert, Lupolianski, former Bank Hapoalim CEO Dan Dankner and 13 other defendants.

Holyland Complex in Jerusalem

Holyland Complex in Jerusalem

Anyone who has seen the Holyland complex can have almost no doubt that there must have been some corruption involved -whether on the part of Olmert or other parties I cannot say. The apartment complex is enormous, ugly and ruins the beautiful Jerusalem skyline with its massiveness.

Photo (not terribly clear) of the chuppah at our wedding in 1980 at the old Holyland Hotel. One can see the view of Jerusalem beyond the fence that is now blocked by the monstrous new Holyland complex

The complex is built on the grounds of the former Holyland hotel (for the sake of due disclosure, it is where we got married almost 32 years ago), a beautiful elegant hotel with glorious gardens commanding a breathtaking view of the Jerusalem hills.   There is no way that planning permission was given to build such a monstrosity without some “funny money” changing hands along the way.

On the subject of political corruption, the author Michael Widlanski has written an excellent article in The Algemeiner e-paper in which he discusses “the ghosts of Prime Ministers past” and compares their modest mores and integrity to the power and money-hungry politicians of today. Here are some highlights:

A Jerusalem court’s mixed verdict on corruption charges against Ehud Olmert and the recent death of Yitzhak Shamir are a good time to examine how Israel’s top leaders have become more like their Arab-Islamic neighbors in at least this respect.

“They said there were envelopes with money, but there no envelopes with money,” declared a beaming Ehud Olmert after a court narrowly exonerated him on three corruption cases and found him guilty in one.

But Olmert’s assessment of his verdict was actually quite incorrect, because three judges unanimously found that he had indeed gotten envelopes with cash and other assorted corrupting favors, and that he acted improperly.

However, they determined that Olmert was entitled to the benefit of the doubt when he said he did not know the full details of the various gifts, claiming he believed they were campaign donations.

In not so ancient Israel leaders from David Ben-Gurion to Yitzhak Shamir left office without becoming millionaires, but recent leaders seem to have parlayed their time in office to become very wealthy (Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert) or just plain very comfortable around moneyed people (Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu).

When Ben-Gurion retired, he had a modest  home on  Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev. His successors Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir never amassed great financial fortunes or real estate holdings. Likud leaders were the same.

Menachem Begin lived in a frugal basement apartment for most of his career, and Yitzhak Shamir was known as someone who never took a vacation while he was on the public payroll.

Not surprisingly, financial corruption charges never touched any of these leaders, although Ben-Gurion’s wife, Paula, suffered from kleptomania and was known to grab things in stores. Ben-Gurion used to send someone to watch after his wife and to pay the bills quietly for the stolen items.  Nobody made a fuss.

Another prime minister’s wife changed this. Leah Rabin used to tell her husband to enjoy the perks of office.

“Yitzhak, ke-sheh notnim lekha, kakch”—”Yitzhak, when someone gives you something, take it.”

[...]

Mrs. Rabin had a foreign currency account in Washington which she failed to close—as required by Israel’s laws at the time. Rather than letting his wife take the blame for the violation, Rabin said that he too was responsible and stepped down from his first term in office.

In Hebrew this is called, lehiyot rosh gadol—literally “to be a big head.” Actually it means to act with responsibility, not to be small-minded and not to throw blame on others.

One can compare the “big-minded”  path of Yitzhak Rabin  to the way Ehud Olmert acted with the four major corruption cases that were brought against him. In each of them, Olmert pleaded innocence by ignorance, allowing people close to him to bear the brunt of the accusations.

Olmert claimed that he did not know what his secretary  and executive assistant Shula Zaken had done in his office. He said the same thing about his law partner Uri Messer, who frequently represented rich clients before Israeli authorities, something that led to frequent accusations that Olmert had used his government ties for profit.

Some of these same clients often gave Olmert various monies, usually not declared, which, when discovered, were  claimed to have been personal loans from friends. Olmert was indicted and narrowly escaped conviction on one of these cases more than a decade ago, while some of his associates went to jail.

Olmert’s assistant,  Ms. Zaken,  was Olmert’s right-hand for more than 20 years, accompanying him to every job he ever had, probably closer and more loyal than the wives of most politicians, and many, if not most political observers found it hard to believe that Zaken had acted in any way without Olmert’s approval.

[...]

The judges, however, did not accept Olmert’s claims that he did not know about monies that went to his law partner, Uri Messer, from important clients who were essentially lobbying the Ministry of Trade while Olmert was the Trade Minister.

Olmert could face a short prison term on this charge of “violation of oath of office,” but most legal observers said it was more likely the judges will sentence Olmert to a period of forced service to the community.

[...]

A few years ago Israeli law was changed to prohibit serving members of Knesset from actively working as lawyers and from lobbying or representing firms while in the Knesset.

For someone like David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir, such a law would not have been necessary.

I find this whole subject supremely depressing. Are these the leaders that Am Yisrael needs in such trying times?

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2 Responses to Ehud Olmert, corruption and the ghosts of Prime Ministers past

  1. Hunter says:

    The vain, incompetent, insolent and cowardly nonentity named Ehud Olmert should join his draft dodging son in exile in France. I loathe the man with every fiber of my being. If ever any Israeli Jews deserved the death penalty because of the harm he has done to the nation it would be Olmert. this is the man who gave Israel Amir Peretz as its Defense Minister.

    • anneinpt says:

      Hunter, I pretty much agree with your assessment of Olmert’s character. However I wouldn’t go so far as asking for the death penalty. I don’t like the idea of the death penalty for anyone except for terrorists. And even if one claims that Olmert’s politics gave support to the Palestinians, let us not forget that it was the Oslo accords under Peres and Rabin that gave us the second intifada in the first place.

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