After finally leaving office this week, Ehud Olmert will have his hands full fighting the corruption charges against him.
There is little sympathy in Israel for the outgoing prime minister, who is widely viewed as a corrupt politician who failed to achieve the lofty goals he set for himself when he took office.
But there are some nagging doubts about the system that brought down Olmert: An elected prime minister has been forced out of office even though he has yet to be found guilty of any crime.
Three major investigations against Olmert—for allegedly tampering with terms for the sale of Bank Leumi to help a friend, and receiving substantial discounts in the rental and purchase of two Jerusalem apartments in return for favors—have been closed for lack of evidence.
It’s possible that Olmert was forced out of office by muckraking political opponents without his having committed any crime, Olmert confidants say.
In a mid-February interview in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot, Olmert’s wife, Aliza, implied as much, saying politically motivated people had been out to get her husband. She declined to go into detail.
Amnon Dankner, a former chief editor of the daily Ma’ariv and a close friend of Olmert, was more forthcoming.
“From the moment he placed himself as the predominant leader of the peacemaking left,” Dankner wrote of Olmert in Ma’ariv last August, “right-wing elements started digging through his affairs going back down the years to produce suspicious material for the authorities.”
On the face of it, Dankner’s allegations seem to have merit.
Yoav Yitzhak, the investigative journalist who produced the allegations on the two Jerusalem apartments, was instrumental in bringing down another peace-leaning politician, the late President Ezer Weizman. The official who came up with the Bank Leumi allegations was then-accountant general Yaron Zelekha, who is close to Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, a prime Olmert rival. And Moshe Talansky, the American Jewish businessman who allegedly gave Olmert envelopes stuffed with cash, and who then testified against the prime minister, has spoken of his disappointment in the once hawkish Olmert’s transformation to a political dove.
The trouble with the picture of Olmert as victim, however, is that some of the allegations against him seem to carry merit: Police have recommended that Olmert be indicted in three separate cases. If Olmert’s political enemies found serious instances of fraud and breach of trust, what difference does it make if their initial muckraking motivation was political, Olmert’s critics ask.
In two of the cases, Israel’s attorney general has decided to indict Olmert pending a hearing: the Talansky affair, in which Olmert is alleged to have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash over a 13-year period, and the Rishon Tours affair, in which Olmert allegedly double-billed for trips and lectures he made abroad, using the excess money to finance travel by family members.
The fact that the attorney general has decided to indict is no small matter. It means that after going through all the material, he is convinced the state has enough evidence to convict.
Indictment by the attorney general is generally considered the signal in Israel for ministers under investigation to resign. In Olmert’s case, the pressure on him to step down was so great that he tendered his formal resignation last September, even before the attorney general announced his intention to indict.
Two other Olmert investigations are ongoing: awarding contracts to his former law partner Uri Messer and appointing cronies when Olmert was minister of trade and industry from 2003 to 2006.
The sheer weight of police probes and corruption scandals with Olmert’s name on them may be about to catch up with a man who long has operated under a cloud of investigations.
In 1981, Olmert received a $50,000 loan via Yehoshua Halperin, CEO of the Bank of North America, which he was never pressed to pay back. Although the circumstances suggested a possible attempt to bribe a sitting Knesset member, Olmert was not prosecuted.
In 1997, Olmert was acquitted in court of responsibility for an election scam in which Likud officials provided fictitious receipts to donors in 1988, when Olmert was the party’s co-treasurer. Olmert successfully pleaded ignorance, but three other Likud officials were convicted.
In 1999, as mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert was investigated for arranging a reception for the mayor of Athens as an alleged favor to an Israeli developer seeking to build an ambitious tourist facility on a Greek island. The developer had just promised to support Olmert in an upcoming race for Likud leader. The case was dropped.
The problem facing the Israeli legal system is finding a balance between fighting corruption in high places and not allowing political opponents of incumbent politicians to abuse the system to subvert the democratic process.
Hebrew University’s Shlomo Avineri, one of Israel’s top political scientists, says the main problem is the slow pace of investigation. In the case of public figures, drawn-out investigations are not only unfair to the politicians, but they hamper government functioning and can pervert democracy, Avineri says. Investigations should be expedited, he says.
Some have suggested adopting the French system, under which the country’s leader cannot be investigated while in office. Another possibility would be something akin to the U.S. system of impeachment: no indictment unless and until a politician is impeached by a two-thirds majority in the Knesset.
As for Olmert, he’s still hoping his name will cleared—and once it is, he will find a way back to the top sooner than most people think.