Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Why Israelis are cynical about their elected officials

Yes to outrage

You know what's really distressing about Sunday's indictment of former prime minister Ehud Olmert on graft charges? It's that the news was anti-climatic. That Israeli society has reached the point where one mass-circulation tabloid devoted more front page coverage to Madonna's visit to the Western Wall than to the historic indictment of an ex-premier.

Israelis were not shaken. We did not feel betrayed. And therein lies the heartbreak.

Part of the blasé reaction can be explained by the fact that Olmert has been under investigation for so long. In September 1996, while in the Likud, he was indicted for illicit fund raising and for signing false statements. He was ultimately acquitted.

In the last three years, Olmert stood accused of influence-peddling at the Finance Ministry to ensure that the privatization tender of Bank Leumi was won by Australian businessman Frank Lowy. That case was dropped. As Industry, Trade and Labor minister, he was accused of handing out patronage jobs to a company associated with his former law partner. That case is still pending.

Back on March 2, 2006, The Jerusalem Post reported that then-acting prime minister Olmert had been cleared of any wrongdoing in the sale of his home on Rehov Kaf Tet B'November in Jerusalem. Further on in that story, though, we reported that Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz was looking into charges that Olmert's purchase of another Jerusalem home on Cremieux Street was shady. No wrongdoing was ever proven in connection with Olmert's real estate dealings on Cremieux St, or in Nahalot, or in Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv.

Still, when Olmert was ultimately driven from office it was not for his inept handling of the Second Lebanon War, but because he became too unpopular to lead Kadima at the polls.

THE attorney-general has now filed a 61-page, three-count indictment charging Olmert with tax evasion, falsifying financial statements and failing to report income. The charges relate to the period Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem and a minister. None allege wrongdoing initiated during his premiership. Olmert is not charged with taking bribes, though that is implicit.

# Charge One: Rishon Tours. Olmert is accused of double, sometimes triple billing the government and not-for-profit organizations for reimbursement of 17 trips abroad between 2002-2006, and of directing that surplus funds, roughly $90,000, be held on account at the travel agency for personal use by him and members of his family.

# Charge Two: Morris Talansky affair. Olmert is accused of receiving $600,000 from the American businessman, some of it in cash-stuffed envelopes, between 1997 and 2005.

# Charge Three: Investment Center. As Minister of Industry and Trade, Olmert is charged with a conflict of interest in intervening on behalf of the clients of his law partner Uri Messer to obtain government grants.

No prime minister or ex-premier has ever before been indicted on criminal charges in Israel's history.

This is the place to say that we have not been impressed with the deportment of Olmert's lawyers, particularly their efforts to delay the handing down of this indictment and impugning the motivation of the prosecution. To insinuate that the indictment was driven by ulterior motives is to undermine trust in the legal system.

Olmert is innocent until proven guilty. He is expected to go on trial in Jerusalem District Court before a three judge panel probably after the High Holy Days. The trial is expected to be a drawn out affair, barring a plea bargain.

WE ARE left feeling that hubris more than ethical standards guide the behavior of too many of our politicians. Sixty years after the establishment of the state, the sense that certain things are just not done remains undeveloped.

Former president Moshe Katsav and now Olmert have been indicted. Former finance minister Avraham Hirschson and former Shas MK Shlomo Benizri both start their prison sentences today. Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak both escaped indictment - just. Police have recommended indicting Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The charges, circumstances, and personalities may vary but the lingering impression is that those who ought to be paragons of probity too often treat the law with contempt. Their greatest offense is making the rest of us cynical about our country.

No comments:

My Archive