Olmert’s ordeal

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert caused damage to Israel’s political culture and contributed to the low standard we have come to expect from our politicians.

July 2, 2017 21:52
3 minute read.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is seen in Jerusalem District Court

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is seen in Jerusalem District Court. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Our feelings are mixed as former prime minister Ehud Olmert gains early release from Maasiyahu prison.

The man was convicted of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and his criminality came to light when he served as prime minister, although he committed the criminal acts before his tenure, which lasted from 2006 to 2009. Indeed, Olmert was forced to resign as he strove to reach a peace agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

As the first – and hopefully the last – head of government to be convicted of misdoings, Olmert caused damage to Israel’s political culture and contributed to the low standard we have come to expect from our politicians.

At the same time, Olmert’s conviction was a vindication of our democratic political system’s ability to fix itself. No individual, not even the prime minister, is above the law.

Corruption has always existed in politics. Where there is power there is the temptation to exploit this power for narrow interests. What separates effective governing systems from states that remain irredeemably mired in malfeasance, bribery and venality, however, is the system of checks and balances that weeds out the rotten and restores a modicum of uprightness to politics. Olmert’s actions can serve as an example for all to see of what not to do.

Still, in its zeal to enforce the law and drive home its point that Olmert is no different from any other citizen, the State Prosecutor has been over-aggressive in its investigation into allegations that the former prime minister smuggled out of prison classified information. The purportedly sensitive information was in the form of chapters from an autobiography he is working on that aims to reframe his legacy.

The State Prosecutor’s behavior is troubling on a number of levels. First, the final publication of the chapters would move forward only after approval by military censor. There was, therefore, never a concern that the chapters would become public knowledge without first being looked over for possible breaches. What then, was the justification for a police raid on the offices of Yediot Books? The police action was disproportionate and could potentially have a chilling effect on freedom of speech in Israel.

What’s more, Olmert served as prime minister for three years, during which he was exposed to national secrets that were never divulged. He has no history of refusing to cooperate with the military censor.

Indeed, the opposite is true.

The zealous State Prosecutor’s investigation of Olmert’s purported breach of security, precisely at a time when a parole board was in the midst of determining whether to detract one-third from the disgraced prime minister’s prison sentence was rightly seen as witch hunt. The preposterous accusation that Olmert was writing his autobiography to make money further damaged the State Prosecutor’s case.

Anyone who has written a book in this country knows that it is not done for money. Book publishing is far from being a lucrative industry in Israel.

Ehud Olmert committed a crime and paid the price for it, but that should not be the full story of his legacy. He served as mayor of Jerusalem, as a minister in a number of offices and eventually as Israel’s prime minister during one of the most tumultuous periods for Israeli security in recent history. During his term, Israel fought the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip and reportedly carried out a wide range of covert military operations throughout the region.

His crimes will remain a stain on his career, but his career is more than just one stain and he deserves to be able to tell that story in the book he is writing. He also deserves to be remembered for the good and the bad, something the State Prosecutor seemed to want to prevent him from being able to do.

Olmert has a lot of soul searching to do as a man with so much promise whose career ended so ignobly.

But Olmert is not alone. The State Prosecutor’s Office behaved unreasonably and it should ask itself why.

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