It is too early to applaud, but there are some indications to encourage optimists. The forces of law may finally be moving seriously against the financial corruption that is serious, if not rampant, in Israeli business and politics.
The clearest sign, and responsible for the word "de-Olmeritzation" coined by one of the media commentators ("de-Olmertizatsia" in creative Hebrew) has been the guilty verdict and 6-year sentence against our former Prime Minister.
That the man himself has not gotten the message appears in his request of the court for permission to travel outside of Israel while pending appeal or the implementation of his sentence, for the stated purpose of "business."
The judge turned down his request, so we can continue to think about applause or optimism.
A second sign of movement against corruption concerns the workers'' organization of Ashdod Port. Their chairman has been charged with running a company that sells cooperation with port workers, and has been well known for calling the boys (many of whom are his relatives) to strike at the slightest provocation, and to have elevated their incomes to be among the highest of worker categories, higher even than government officials, physicians, and university lecturers.
A third hopeful sign came only in recent days when the prosecutor ordered the police to investigate MK Benyamin Ben-Eliezer, a long serving general, then politician, and a candidate in the presidential race.
Police interviews with Ben-Eliezer about considerable loans received from a businessman with interests in government decisions began only five days in advance of the Knesset voting for president, which led him to charge a sabotage of his campaign by unnamed competitors, to assert his innocence, and to announce his withdrawal from the race. Subsequent commentary is of the nature "we''ve known all along that Ben-Eliezer is dirty, but the media has given him a pass."
A few days later the police opened a safe-deposit box owned by Ben-Eliezer, and found $510,000 in hitherto undeclared cash.
Other commentators are comparing Ben-Eliezer''s story to that of Katzav, known by insiders to be a sexual predator, but given a pass when he ran against Shimon Peres for the presidency in 2000.
The presidential race, now completed with the election of Reuben (Ruby) Rivlin, began with seven likely candidates. Long-serving MK and Minister Silvan Shalom dropped out after police investigated charges of sexual harassment. The decision was made not to indict, due to the statute of limitations on one instance, and a reluctance of other stories to reach the level of formal complaints. Nonetheless, the damage was fatal to Shalom''s candidacy.
Olmert''s story is a long one, and touches on several of the problems in Israel government, business, and justice.
He long operated at the border of the dirty, being investigated for favoring party activists in decisions made as a minister, receiving "loans" from supporters for expensive housing, double-billing for trips, and envelopes of cash that he claimed were handled by underlings with no stain of personal wrong doing.
Until recently, the police, prosecutors, and/or judges accepted his explanations.
Only in the most recent case involving bribery did the judge decide that he had heard enough, and that common sense along with substantial evidence indicated that Olmert was guilty.
Involved in the problem is the Judaic tradition of judgement, apparent in the Talmud and subsequent writings, as well as Israel''s rules of judicial procedure, which place considerable burdens of proof on issues of intent and actions. If Israeli justice is free of juries and the theatrics that produced the not guilty verdict of O.J. Simpson, it suffers from interminable procedures and an excessive concern for absolute proof of guilty intentions as well as behavior.
There is no end of police and prosecutors pondering whether to bring charges, then short court sessions only a few times a week with frequent long recesses, and no recognition that "justice delayed is justice denied." The concern is to find the truth, as elusive as that may be. The most recent proceedings against Ehud Olmert have lasted for almost five years, counting from the issuing of an indictment. Appeals and trials on additional charges may go on for years more.
A case that does not involve money but the improper activities of senior military personnel has been in and out of the headlines for close to four years. The police investigation are now focusing on the former Commanding General (Gabi Ashkenazi) and his wife, as well as several former senior officers linked to the Office of the Commanding General, said to have been involved in a cabal against the Defense Minister, concerned mainly to torpedo a candidate as the subsequent Commanding General. The Defense Minister in the case (Ehud Barak) has also been alleged to be less than pure in this and other matters, but he has so far escaped aggressive police questioning.
How dirty is Israel?
That''s a question impossible to answer.
There are surveys claiming to measure national cleanliness vs corruption, but they rely on judgments by individuals who lack expertise on more than one or a few places.
Among the most prominent of Israel''s problems:
- Former President Katsav convicted of rape
- Former Prime Minister Olmert convicted of financial corruption, squeaking out of numerous previous trials with not guilty verdicts, but now charged with paying a close associate not to testify against him
- The Ezer Weizman resigned the presidency in response to charges about financial irregularities
- Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was investigated for years, and finally tried on what some viewed as the most minor of the charges against him. The judges admonished him for improprieties, but ruled that he was not guilty of criminal activity.
- Knesset Member Ariyeh Deri spent time in prison for bribery after a stint as Interior Minister
- Former Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson served time for embezzlement
- Former Minister (Health, Labor and Welfare), served time for bribery
"Corruption" as well as "justice," and "wisdom" are elusive in the extreme, perhaps left out of any political conversation. It is a challenge to compare Olmert''s acquisition of wealth to the parallel stories of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, the sexual record of Moshe Katsav to those of John Kennedy or Bill Clinton, or any of the Israelis'' sins to the millions who died or were turned into refugees on account of George W. Bush''s aspirations for Iraq.
I''ll rest with the hope--so far short of optimism--that de-Olmertization will extend beyond the case of the former prime minister, as well as Ben Eliezer, the Port of Ashdod, and senior military personnel, and make this a better place.