Some 35 years ago, when I was asked by a sympathetic NCO during basic training what I was finding hardest, I answered: “Knowing I can’t go out.”
I didn’t even want to leave the base, but the knowledge that I wasn’t free to come and go as I pleased was difficult.
I expect most of my peers had similar complaints: Missing family (and pets); no homemade favorite dishes; unable to just kick off their shoes (or boots) and relax. The lack of freedom and the lack of choice.
Fortunately, if there is one thing that differentiates between the Israel Defense Forces and the military elsewhere (apart from the number of times we’ve been put to the test), it is that most soldiers regularly get to go home for weekends.
The fact that the country is tiny means that (except for the lone soldiers who have volunteered from abroad) home is never far away. It also makes what you’re defending that much clearer.
As I listened earlier this week to the breathless broadcasts as former prime minister Ehud Olmert was about to start his prison sentence in a far humbler abode than any of his previous residences, I reflected that going to jail was probably like returning to basic training – and the longer the period you’d been a civilian, and the higher you had risen, the harder it would be.
Ironically, Olmert started his political career in the 1970s as an anti-corruption crusader along with the late Yossi Sarid (who, say what you like about his politics, apparently remained uncorrupted by power).
Just as I was almost beginning to feel sorry for Olmert, my walk in the park took me past the spot where the incredible view of Jerusalem is marred by Holyland, the apartment complex whose name, thanks to Olmert as a former mayor, has come to symbolize the ugliness of corruption.
I stopped playing devil’s advocate.
In fact, almost everywhere you go in southern Jerusalem, Holyland sticks out, so out of place among the biblical hills that “it is its own indictment sheet,” as one journalist put it. Standing aloof, it has Olmert’s arrogance built into it.
Although I don’t feel any joy in seeing a previous prime minister cut down to size – suddenly transformed from being a big name to being a number (9032478, in case you’re wondering) – I nonetheless feel he had it coming.
His conviction, along with those of nine other once-free and proud officials, including his successor at city hall, Uri Lupolianski, is fair. Involved in a whole host of financial scandals, the fact that Olmert’s home for the next year and a half at least will be a well-guarded prison wing seems almost poetic justice for helping that monstrous apartment block to rise.
Lupolianski, who used under-the-table donations to help Yad Sarah, the worthy charity he set up to lend medical equipment, was spared a prison sentence because of his poor health.
The case ran for years in the local media like a bizarre soap opera, too close to home for comfort. Israelis, conditioned to look on the bright side, drew some satisfaction or consolation from the way it proved that nobody is above the law. The trouble is: The reminders are painfully frequent.
According to reports, a friend of former president Moshe Katsav, serving seven years for rape and sexual offenses, said the former No.
1 citizen would be interested in offering his advice to Olmert as he headed for the same prison.
Former health minister Shlomo Benizri (also an ex-convict) shared his hard-gained wisdom in radio and newspaper interviews: Don’t patronize the prison guards or consider yourself above anyone else. Arye Deri, who served time for corruption and who now, incredibly, serves as interior minister (leading to jokes about returning to a crime scene) was mercifully quiet on the subject. A former finance minister, Avraham Hirschson, convicted of embezzlement, could probably also offer some tips (of the non-financial kind).
Incidentally, Block 10, the special segregated and upgraded section of Ma’asiyahu Prison now nicknamed the VIP Block despite Benizri’s advice, has a maximum capacity of 18 with six cells, each containing three beds, a shower, bathroom, closet, table, chairs and a television. There are currently only four people other than Olmert there.
News footage showed a mess hall, sports equipment, an outdoor area and public phones that also reminded me of some army bases I served on (with the added hardship of not having a phone at home to call in those days when landlines were still rare here and cellular phones were unimaginable).
Naturally, there was much discussion of what Israelis call the “Buzaglo test” (mivhan Buzaglo) – the principle of Israeli law that the country’s highest personages and the most ordinary citizen, the hypothetical defendant Haim Buzaglo, should be judged by the same courtroom standards.
Judge for yourself: Buzaglo’s chances possibly depend on the experience and record of the lawyers he can afford to hire.
Olmert’s relative seclusion, which I assume will be either a blessing or intolerably lonely depending on his mood, is the result of strict security considerations. All the inmates with whom he shares the wing have been carefully vetted by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
After all, there’s no escaping the fact that Olmert knows more state secrets than almost anyone else in the country.
Shortly before beginning his sentence, Olmert released a videotaped statement, evidently aimed at presenting his desired image despite the circumstances: “Life has presented me with a test that’s not easy,” as he put it.
Pre-recorded in private, he did not have to answer questions from the press or look anybody in the eye as he spoke, saying with a tired yet resolute expression: “At this hour, it is important for me to say once again that I am innocent of charges that I took bribes,” and stressing that “none of the charges stemmed from the time during which I served as prime minister.
“You can imagine how this change is painful and strange for me, for my family, my loved ones and supporters,” he said, but, struggling like the ordinary citizen to find something positive, noted that his sentence “shows the strength of Israeli democracy.”
He nonetheless hinted that he was the victim of a political campaign, saying, “My case snowballed for reasons that were not related to legal considerations” and that he was “paying a heavy price, maybe too heavy.”
He obviously hopes the strength of his political convictions will outshine his judicial ones.
Olmert would prefer to be remembered not as the first Israeli prime minister behind bars but for his peace efforts with the Palestinians and for stopping the nascent Syrian nuclear weapons program (although Israel cannot openly take responsibility/credit for that air strike).
He also believes, or would like the public to believe, that the Second Lebanon War in 2006 at the start of his short watch as premier delivered such a crushing blow to Hezbollah that the border with Lebanon has remained relatively quiet since, although just this week Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened that he could cause the equivalent effect of an atomic bomb by hitting Haifa’s ammonia plant with a missile from Lebanon.
Olmert can’t claim that the war in 2007 to stop the hundreds of rockets from Gaza being launched by Hamas on Israel was a particular success.
If anything, every subsequent rocket and mini-war has increased the fears of the vast majority of the Israeli public that any move that involved handing territory to the Palestinians would be followed by increased terrorism and rocket attacks.
Anybody who thinks that territory is not important should speak to residents of the South (and increasingly in the North) who fear that more terror tunnels are being dug under their homes, shops, schools and kindergartens.
As fate would have it, as Olmert made his grim-faced way to jail, schools throughout the country were carrying out a rocket-safety drill. The wail of the air-raid siren caused my stomach to lurch even though I knew it was a simulation. Sadly, there are very few children here who aren’t familiar with the red-alert siren, and not just in drills.
Not for the first time, I was relieved that Olmert’s discussions about handing the Golan Heights to Syria, using Turkey of all negotiators, fell flat with even many left-ofcenter Israelis, as did Yitzhak Rabin’s plans before him.
I dread to think of Israel’s plight today if it did not hold the strategic area controlling the fate of the entire North. Just beyond the border, what’s left of the Assad family’s unholy regime now fights Islamic State and other jihadists in the civil war that has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions.
Toward the end of Olmert’s premiership, the phrase “Ke’omek hahakira, omek hanesiga” – roughly translatable as “The deeper the investigation, the deeper the evacuation” – used to describe Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan while he was subject to police inquiries, made an understandable comeback.
If there can be any consolation in seeing a former prime minister jailed for corruption it is that it serves as a lesson to all other leaders: No one is a law unto himself. It’s a principle worth defending. Olmert will have plenty of time to contemplate its meaning, while his monumental failure continues to cast its shadow in Jerusalem.