In July 2008, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was forced to resign because of charges of corruption: Taking a bribe from the American businessman Morris Talansky; submitting false, duplicate claims for travel expenses; and — as minister of trade, in charge of state grants — helping the businesses of a lawyer friend in an inappropriate way.
In his resignation statement, Olmert said that “I will step aside properly in an honorable and responsible way, and afterwards I will prove my innocence. I want to make it clear — I am proud to be a citizen of a country where the prime minister can be investigated like a regular citizen. It is the duty of the police to investigate, and the duty of the prosecution to instruct the police. The prime minister is not above the law.”
Also in 2008, an American high level politician was forced out of office on the charges of corruption. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was charged with false statements, wire fraud, attempted extortion, conspiracy to solicit bribes and — if this is not enough — an attempt to “sell” the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he was elected president.
Blagojevich, unlike Olmert, refused to resign. He declared his innocence and promised that he would be “vindicated.”
Here is what happened next in these two cases. In 2011 Blagojevich was found guilty of 17 charges of corruption and was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Olmert, this week, was acquitted of the two first charges, and found guilty of the third charge, which the court changed from fraud to a lesser charge of “breach of trust,” unlikely to carry a prison term.
Both politicians, then, promised to prove their innocence in court. Blagojevich failed miserably, while Olmert almost succeeded. In the process, however, both were removed from the political arena to fight their case in the legal system. When the Blagojevich trial was over, Americans could rightly be proud of their law enforcement agencies, which had cleansed their politics of a corrupt governor.
However, when this week the Israeli court announced its ruling on the Olmert charges, all hell broke loose. Olmert’s friends, as well as leading public and media figures attacked Israeli Attorney General Moshe Lador who had led the case, charging him with no less than a conspiracy: a legal coup against a duly elected prime minister.
The argument goes like this: Since Olmert was a popular and able prime minister, standing firmly for a two-state solution, right-wingers who opposed his policies decided to stop him. They allegedly recruited rich American Jews who sent Morris Talansky to implicate Olmert in bribery. Never mind what happened in the trial (the court ruled that Talansky, the main witness, was highly unreliable), what matters is that Olmert was removed, Benjamin Netanyahu replaced him and that’s the end of the two-state solution.
As far-fetched as this scenario might sound, it reminds me of the heated debate in the House over the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. While I was fascinated by the way the lofty constitutional ideals were invoked, I always suspected some sophisticated plot to circumvent the political will of the American people, who had elected Clinton to office, and to remove him with legal means.
I like Olmert. Politically, I wish he had remained prime minister. The four years he has been out of office are lost years. But does this mean that when there are allegations of corruption against a politician, and all the law-enforcing agencies believe that there is a fair chance for the prosecution to win the case, we should nevertheless refrain from doing so because we like the politics of that politician?
I have my doubts. Even the minor charge of “breach of trust,” for which Mr. Olmert was found guilty, is, in the words of former Justice Eliyahu Matza, “not a reason for celebration.” Not to mention the fact that Olmert is still facing another trial, on a charge of big-scale building permits bribery.
On one thing, however, I have no doubt whatsoever: I’m happy that I’m not invited to the TV studios to comment on this case. If they invite me, I’ll decline. Why? Because on television, you need to have a quick, simple and unequivocal answer to a very complex question. If you dare say that you’re not sure, and you need to think about it, and there is “on the other hand,” the control room declares you a “yawner” and they shut you up.
Long live the newspaper!Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem.