Israel is a democracy, as evidenced by the verdict against a former prime minister, who will now be sentenced for accepting bribes while in office. The legal process which in recent years brought to justice a former president, a former prime minister and a former finance minister, is an indication of moral corruption in too many people in high places. It is nothing to be proud of. In a truly democratic country, where freedom of speech and thought are more important than petty politics, such behavior might not have taken place. An open, truth-driven press could have prevented it.
Indeed, in the case of Ehud Olmert, one brave journalist, Yoav Yitzchak, had for years been warning of and exposing Olmert’s misdeeds in print. It was on May 10, 2006, a couple of months after the elections in Israel, that Yitzchak, in a press conference, attacked then-minister Olmert for the financial transactions behind his purchase of an apartment on Jerusalem’s posh Cremieux Street. Olmert at that time was nearing the pinnacle of his political power, yet Yitzchak had no fear.
Yitzchak’s involvement in the Holyland affair started in 1996. He exposed the fact that Hillel Charney, the owner of the 120 dunams (30 acres) of Holyland real estate (and now convicted for bribery), received a fictitious assessment of the value of his property.
Charney wanted to transfer ownership from the “Holyland Corporation,” a foreign company which he controlled, to an Israeli company also under his control. Such a transfer could lead to substantial property and profit taxes, so a lower assessment of the property value would reduce the tax burden.
Two assessors estimated the value at a bit over $10 million, while realistic estimates were much higher. The old Holyland Hotel still existed at that time.
It took six more years before the two assessors were found guilty by the assessors’ ethics committee for their fictitious assessments.
On July 28, 2008, Yitzchak exposed for the first time that then-prime minister Olmert had received bribes in connection with the Holyland project. It took another year before the police, after receiving further information from Yitzchak, corroborated by the state’s witness Shmuel Duchner, decided to open an investigation. The rest is now history.
Was Yitzchak alone in his exposés? No. In 2002, the local Jerusalem paper Kol Ha’ir severely criticized Olmert, especially for his frequent flights abroad. But this was not the media norm.
It is no secret that for years, Yediot Aharonot was a staunch supporter of Olmert. It is no surprise, but sad to note, that Mordechai Gilat, Yediot’s prime investigative reporter at that time, did not report anything about Olmert’s misdeeds, even though he later claimed he knew about them already in 2007.
It was only after Gilat moved to Yisrael Hayom that he started attacking Olmert. In May 2008 he related to various accusations against Olmert, but did not mention the Holyland project.
Another prominent journalist who took a stand against Olmert is Dan Margalit. When Olmert was found not guilty for his actions in the Rishontours and Talansky affairs, Margalit called upon the attorney-general on July 11, 2012, to appeal the case before the Supreme Court. Margalit commented: “Who believes that Ehud Olmert did not know about the manipulations his secretaries did with the airline tickets?” In the aftermath of Olmert’s conviction, Margalit took Olmert to task: “Head of a crime gang” was his headline in Yisrael Hayom this past Tuesday. But Margalit’s role as a journalist in this whole affair was a very minor one, if that.
Margalit was a very close friend of Olmert for 35 years. After Olmert became prime minister, in the wake of the Second Lebanon War, Margalit decided to cut off the relationship.
In an interview with Dorit Keren-Zvi published on February 16, 2007, in Haaretz, Margalit explained that he “understood then that the war was being managed incorrectly.
And even before I wrote about that in the paper, the people in his closest circle heard me say that in my estimation he has to go.
This is not the job for him. Not everyone is cut out to be prime minister. I think, not with hatred but the opposite, with much love, that Ehud Olmert failed in the Second Lebanon War.”
So Margalit did not part ways with Olmert because of the latter’s corrupt ways. In fact, Margalit claimed in that same interview that “I miss him so much. There’s no way around it – I just love him. You know, there isn’t a day on which I get home and before putting the key in the lock, I think about the conversation I am about to have with Ehud. And then I remember. Abruptly, I tell myself: It’s impossible.
That’s what I miss the most.”
Journalist Mati Golan, writing in the Globes newspaper on March 12, 2013, claims Margalit left Olmert since he was denied the job of Olmert’s chief of staff, which he very much desired. We don’t know the truth, though one thing is certain: Margalit failed as an investigative journalist. He should have known, given Olmert’s rich history, that Olmert most probably was a crook, and should have attempted to expose this.
Today, Margalit speaks loudly about Olmert’s misdeeds in Yisrael Hayom, the newspaper which staunchly defends Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Olmert’s nemesis. One could commend him for realizing – rather belatedly – who his close friend was.
Yitzchak writes that “Dan Margalit is one of the best journalists in Israel. He is professional, curious and brave. He understands things.
He knows very well what the job of a journalist and public figure is in a democracy.” We believe, though, that his position on Olmert would be much more authentic had it come during the many years he worked for Ma’ariv.
Gilat and Margalit are just the tip of the iceberg of the failings of Israel’s senior media in the Olmert affair. For years, Yediot Aharonot did all it could to defend Olmert. The tireless efforts of Yitzchak bore fruit and the criminals will, after many years, pay for their misdeeds.
There were many other important players in this story, such as the Justice Ministry’s state prosecutor, Moshe Lador, the attorneys who prepared the case and the police investigators.
But had the media done its job from the very beginning, maybe Olmert and his friends would have understood that crime does not pay. Or, perhaps an informed public could also have acted, or voted differently.
Israel is not proud that a former prime minister will most likely go to jail. But it should pride itself on idealists such as Yoav Yitzchak.
In the aftermath of his being awarded the Israeli Prize for Media Criticism by Israel’s Media Watch, we wrote in The Jerusalem Post on October 10, 2002: “the award was given for his unique role as a journalistic establishment, for his firm stand against the giants of the Israeli media and for his important contributions to the public discourse on media and journalism.” It would be most fitting if he were to receive the next Israel Prize for Journalism.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch.