Legal experts agreed on Tuesday that the Jerusalem District Court’s acquittal of former prime minister Ehud Olmert on two of the largest charges against him has dealt a major blow to the State Attorney’s Office.
The verdict is particularly damaging to State Attorney Moshe Lador, who very publicly pledged to take personal responsibility for the case against the former prime minister.
Significantly, in 2008, before Olmert was indicted, Lador pushed for New York businessman Moshe Talansky to give pre-trial testimony in the case.
When Olmert’s lawyers fought that decision in court earlier that year, the state attorney told the Supreme Court that without such testimony from Talansky, the state may not be able to muster a case against the former prime minister.
In that hearing, Olmert’s attorneys slammed Lador’s move as “creating a situation that would leave the prosecution no choice but to put the prime minister on trial.”
Immediately after Tuesday’s verdict, Lador did not issue a statement, but Jerusalem District Attorney Eli Abarbanel told reporters that his office was “surprised” by the court ruling.
However, in a rare move on Tuesday afternoon, Lador held a press conference defending his decision to indict Olmert, saying there had been reasonable grounds to do so and that if the State Attorney’s Office had not pressed charges it would have failed to carry out the task assigned to it.
But calls by MKs as well as Olmert’s lawyers and friends throughout Tuesday for Lador to resign over the matter served as a reminder of how aggressively the state attorney pursued the indictment against the former prime minister.
Earlier this year, while the trial was still ongoing, Olmert sued Lador for defamation, after the state attorney described Olmert’s acceptance of a loan from American businessman Joe Almaliah as “extraordinarily scandalous” in a 2011 newspaper interview.
Judges in the Tel Aviv District Court harshly condemned Lador’s conduct, including after the State Attorney’s Office demanded he have immunity against prosecution. Olmert withdrew the suit last week after the state attorney formally apologized.
Prof. Yoram Shachar, a criminal law expert from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said Olmert’s exoneration should prompt the prosecution to conduct a major heshbon nefesh, or soul searching.
“The State Attorney’s Office now needs to take a good, hard look at its campaign against government corruption,” Shachar told The Jerusalem Post.
Olmert’s exoneration has significant political ramifications as well as legal ones, since the former premier has now been acquitted of the very same charges that forced his resignation in 2009.
Shachar said the prosecution’s method of uprooting corruption “from the bottom up” had tended to result in minor officials being convicted – like Shula Zaken, Olmert’s former bureau chief in the Rishon Tours affair – because it was easier to prove the charges against them.
“The prosecution should stick to clear-cut cases, where the facts are easy to prove, and avoid bringing more trivial cases to court,” Shachar said, adding that the country’s law enforcement has been “over zealous” in bringing corruption cases to trial.
He added: “The State Attorney’s Office in Israel has considerable discretion in prosecuting cases, and they should use it, especially when dealing with major political figures.”
Instead of bringing every corruption allegation to court, Shachar said the country needs to put in place different measures to guard against petty corruption, including of the type the prosecution alleged in the Rishon Tours case.
The state comptroller could implement tighter controls on public officials’ management of public spending, and government offices could introduce stricter disciplinary procedures to deal with such matters, he suggested.
Meanwhile, Shachar praised Jerusalem District Court President Moussia Arad and judges Jacob Zaban and Moshe Sobel for what he called a “courageous” decision that went against the tide of public expectation.
“The judges showed that there is power in the law, by rising above politics and media noise to give their verdict,” he added.
However, other legalists said the prosecution had done its job correctly by bringing charges against the former prime minister.
Dr. Chaim Shine, an expert in the philosophy of law at the Sha’are Mishpat College of Legal Studies, argued that the state should now move to “strengthen” the prosecution to help it in its war on government corruption.
“The court said that in the case of the Investment Center affair, Ehud Olmert acted against the interests of his government position,” Shine told the Post. “In the other cases, the court ruled that there is a thin line separating deceit and criminal deceit, and it was not proven that [Olmert] crossed that line.” Shine noted that the court had not criticized the prosecution at all.
Meanwhile, Prof. Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the ultimate significance of Olmert’s acquittal would be decided by the media and not by the courts.
“There will be a media war, and a lot of spin,” he said, adding that he believed Olmert would continue to be involved in politics.