Last week, Iran could have nuked Tel Aviv without Israelis noticing. A bigger bombshell was the sentencing of former prime minister Ehud Olmert – and a long list of co-defendants – convicted of taking bribes and breach of trust.
The reason that this caused such a stir was not merely due to the fact that a former prime minister received a stiff sentence for his part in the “worst corruption case in the country’s history.” By now, Israelis have grown accustomed to politicians going to jail.
The phenomenon is considered both a mark of Cain and a source of pride. On one hand, there is shame in leaders whose hubris and greed outweigh their civic responsibilities.
On the other, there is something uplifting about an egalitarian society with a legal system that does not treat members of the upper echelons differently from average citizens.
Indeed, it is the latter that has caused Arabs throughout the Middle East, regardless of their level of hostility to Jews and the State of Israel, to envy Israeli democracy.
No, the shock that the sentence elicited was the result of the disbelief that Olmert would actually serve time. For decades, a cloud of suspicion – culminating in a number of police investigations and trials – has been hanging over his head. Yet the seasoned statesman, who has been a member of Knesset, a minister, the mayor of Jerusalem and the prime minister, has always been acquitted.
This, rightly, has been his claim to innocence. Rumors, after all, do not constitute proof.
Since Olmert’s conviction in March, then, the view of the public has been that the worst punishment he would receive is the inability to make a political comeback.
In Israel, where neither age nor electoral failure nor disgrace prevent a politician from popping up like a jack-in-the-box every time he is pushed down, such an outcome seemed harsh enough.
In addition, Olmert has continued to enjoy the political support of much of the media, particularly the newspaper Yediot Aharonot. His push for massive Israeli territorial withdrawals and other major concessions on behalf of Palestinian statehood has kept him relevant in academia and on the lecture circuit.
That when he was prime minister he did not manage to persuade the Palestinian Authority of this is beside the point. Any argument that places the onus for peace on Israel is hailed on the Left as the right one.
Finally, because the courts in Israel tend to share this position, there was a sense that Olmert would be given a break. Until last Tuesday, that is, when Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rozen opened his mouth.
Not only did the visibly disgusted Rozen sentence Olmert, whom he referred to throughout the trial as “defendant number eight,” to six years in prison; not only did he order Olmert to pay an NIS 1 million ($290,000) fine; and not only did he attach “moral turpitude” to the conviction, a clause preventing Olmert from ever returning to politics, but also called Olmert a felon who is “no better than a traitor.”
Suddenly, it dawned on all the skeptics that Olmert was actually taking a rap this time, and not merely on the knuckles.
But the effect this is having on average Joes indicates it is going to take a lot more than a judge’s outrage to eliminate illegal wheeling and dealing, which extends way beyond – or rather far beneath – high society.
This week alone, I have witnessed three instances of cognitive dissonance in relation to Olmert that could keep the country’s psychiatrists in clover for decades.
On Tuesday, a taxi driver suggested not turning on the meter so he could fix the price. I refused. He was annoyed. But our conversation quickly turned to Olmert.
“Good for the judge,” he said. “Enough with all these crooked politicians.”
On Wednesday, a workman doing a job in my apartment called Olmert a “thief who deserved what he got.” But when I took out my checkbook to pay him for his services, he directed his wrath at me.
“You knew I was coming,” he growled. “Why don’t you have cash?” On Thursday, when a professor friend finished a rant against Olmert, he suggested that I solve my own financial problems by doing more work “under the table” and padding my expenses.
This brings to mind an anecdote commonly attributed to George Bernard Shaw about a man who asks a woman whether she would go to bed with him for a million pounds.
“I’d certainly consider it,” she replies.
“Would you do it for one pound?” he offers.
“What do you take me for – a prostitute?” the woman responds.
“Madam,” he says, “We’ve already established that; now we are haggling over the price.”
The Israeli psyche operates similarly. It is not the principle of monkey business with money that is abhorrent; only its extent.
When people like Olmert break the law, we want them to pay dearly for the privileges it affords them. When the rest of us do the same on a smaller scale, we refuse to forfeit even the benefits of moral indignation.
The writer is the author of To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’