I felt sorry for Shula Zaken last week. Although I boast that I don’t suffer from jet lag, following a long journey I cherish arriving home, kicking off my shoes, making a fuss of the dog and cats and taking a shower before going through the mail (the old-fashioned type, that comes in envelopes) and listening to my phone messages.
Zaken – the long-term aide of former prime minister Ehud Olmert – arrived back from an extended stay in Los Angeles and was promptly detained, in front of the media, before she had cleared passport control at Ben-Gurion Airport.
The Holyland affair has cast such a shadow – much like the ugly buildings themselves – that Zaken was immediately taken into custody to be questioned about her possible role in the real-estate scandal that is grabbing more and more names and headlines.
It’s not that I have anything positive to say about the concept, design or planning procedures of the project known in my family as “the big ugly buildings.” I warned against it as an environment reporter before the construction had even been approved (which was before the term ‘environment’ became a buzzword, for that matter). And just about every Jerusalemite I know feels that such an architectural monstrosity could only be born out of a perversion of proper planning.
So why did I feel sorry for Zaken? Well, I suspect that if I were deprived of coffee and a shower for too long after a transatlantic flight I might confess to almost anything. And I hope that Zaken’s arrest was solely motivated by the need to prevent a possible perversion of justice, and not as a form of punishment or a means of extracting information.
While Zaken spent her first night back in the country in custody, suspected spy Anat Kamm is under house arrest in Tel Aviv. This despite the fact that she has admitted stealing some 2,000 documents from Central Command when she was a soldier – and losing some of those she didn’t pass on to a journalist.
In the technological age, there is very little Zaken could do in her home – which had already been searched by police – that she couldn’t have done by phone and computer from the US. And she wasn’t likely to flee the country the second she returned.
OF COURSE corruption is serious; it can undermine a society. That’s why the fight against it is of vital importance. No less important, however, is the way that fight is fought. Justice must be done and it must be seen to be done, goes the aphorism. But the saying was coined before media cameras could capture personalities at the moment of their greatest humiliation.
The local press frequently refers to the “Buzaglo test” – the principle of Israeli law that the country’s highest personages and most ordinary citizens – the hypothetical defendant Haim Buzaglo – should be judged in court by the same standards. Yet judging by many of the reports, the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” is in danger of being overlooked when it is not Buzaglo but the rich and famous in the courtroom.
So many public figures have been caught up in the current investigation that Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who has spent more than a decade facing various investigations, joked this week that he was relieved that his name had finally come up in the Holyland context; he feared he had become a nobody.
Among the personalities who can sympathize with Zaken – some still from the inside, some now under house arrest – are ex-Bank Hapoalim chairman Dan Dankner, former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski, Israel Lands Administration head Ya’acov Efrati, former Jerusalem deputy mayor Yehoshua Pollack, Holyland financial backer Hillel Charni and former Olmert confidant and attorney Uri Messer.
Advocate Giora Zilberstein, representing property developer and “macher
” Meir Rabin – a central but less famous figure in the affair – last week said police had accused his client of passing on illegal funds to figures including Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Lieberman, Kadima MK Ruhama Avraham-Balila and former Likud MK Danny Naveh.
And Olmert has been named in so many fraud and corruption cases that it is amazing that he, too, was free and traveling when the Holyland scandal erupted. His problems neither started nor ended with these or other expensive homes. But many charges against him have been dropped along the way.
Almost overlooked as “all the usual suspects” – and then some – received banner headlines were other cases of possible misdoings. The case of Ramat Gan Mayor Zvi Bar, for instance, was pushed to the sidelines. Bar allegedly worked to triple the size of a residential project in his city at the expense of other municipal plans. A former high-ranking police commander, Bar is also being investigated for bribery, money-laundering, aggravated fraud and income tax violations.
Even Intelligence Services Minister Dan Meridor (a former justice minister with a squeaky-clean image) is undergoing a Bar Association probe over the terms of the fees he demanded when he represented multimillionaire Arkadi Gaydamak.
The wisdom of the High Court of Justice decision last November to overturn Knesset legislation and declare that a privately owned and run prison was unconstitutional is becoming ever more apparent. If so many of the country’s politicians face convictions, it seems even less wise to leave their possible jail conditions in the hands of those who might have invested interests, as it were.
THE HOLYLAND affair did not come out of the blue any more than the building itself sprang up overnight. But the ramifications are tremendous. It’s almost impossible for a well-placed businessman not to be in touch with someone of influence. This is a small country with a small capital: Everyone knows everyone. The average society event in Jerusalem will reveal building contractors alongside city councillors and politicians, with more than a few members of the press present.
And I wasn’t the only one to raise an eyebrow when Yehuda Weinstein,
formerly Olmert’s lawyer, was appointed attorney-general a few months
Yet Holyland has become a symbol of corruption – even before the first
indictment has been filed. A joke doing the rounds in my rapidly
gentrifying neighborhood goes: “Jerusalem doesn’t have a beach but it
has plenty of property sharks.”
But justice needs to be based on more than a gut feeling. The police
and judicial system must be extra careful to make sure they have
sufficient, credible evidence before bringing this case to court.
Heaven help us if, in the name of cleaning up corruption, we start
throwing dirt in all directions, hoping some sticks.
There are obviously many failings in the country’s planning procedures,
and these will literally leave their ugly mark on the landscape.
However, how we deal with changing the system from a legal and moral
perspective will also have an impact. The Hebrew term for a clean-up
campaign of the anti-corruption type is biur hametz
a truly cultural reference reflecting the practice of burning leavened
products before Pessah. We need to make sure that, in our enthusiasm,
the flames don’t get out of control.