The Holyland trial vanquished corruption forever – or not!

Many hoped that watching former Jerusalem mayor Olmert, a former Bank Hapoalim chairman and others get sentenced to several years in prison would deter public corruption.

Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Avigdor Liberman
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It must be dizzying for some observers to be hearing week after week former prime minister Ehud Olmert being publicly eviscerated in tapes of him discussing his dirty laundry with former aide Shula Zaken, only to learn on Wednesday about the “Kirschenbaum Affair,” or to some, the “Yisrael Beytenu Affair.”
Many hoped that watching former Jerusalem mayor Olmert, another former Jerusalem mayor, deputy mayor, council members, a former Bank Hapoalim chairman and others get sentenced to several years in prison would deter public corruption.
And it appeared to have some effect on the margins, with some speculating that former Bat Yam mayor Shlomo Lahiani backed out of a full trial and into a plea bargain shortly after seeing Olmert’s fate.
But that was just on the margins.
Why is the public faced with yet another Holyland-size public corruption scandal, and how do the cases compare? In some ways, this affair may be the most audacious yet, even if it has not caught out a prime minister.
To understand why and where this case fits, and it must be remembered that no one has been indicted or will be for months, that the final allegations may look very different and that all are innocent until proven guilty, it behooves us to look at two other recent cases.
The Straw Companies Affair and Belarusian Ambassador Affair against Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (even though as yet, there is no indication whatsoever that he is under any new cloud, even as some of his top allies are) are instructive.
Liberman was never indicted in the Straw Companies Affair accusing him of millions of dollars in money-laundering, but less because Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein was all that convinced of his innocence and more because compiling evidence from as many as eight foreign countries and foreign witnesses was too great a feat.
Even if former state attorney Moshe Lador, who wanted to indict Liberman, was right about the case, Liberman’s actions could still be viewed as far less audacious than Deputy Interior Minister and long-time Yisrael Beytenu director-general Kirschenbaum’s.
The accusations said that he was an invisible hand guiding agents to move funds around in foreign countries, but Kirschenbaum allegedly was far more directly involved, in some cases using her own accounts for funds, and she and a range of other Yisrael Beytenu leaders moved funds within the country.
What makes this business even more audacious is that, unlike the Holyland Affair, which did not involve Yisrael Beytenu and where the bribery money was private funds paid to public officials, here the alleged bribery or otherwise illegally transferred funds were public funds being divided.
According to the allegations, Kirschenbaum and others doled out and accepted bribes and illegal funds transfers or directed a group of middlemen like Yisrael Yehoshua, a lobbyist and senior Likud activist with close ties to Liberman, to transfer bribes or illegal fund transfers.
As deputy interior minister, she was ideally placed to network with local government officials, such as Samaria Regional Council head Gershon Mesika, Megilot Regional Council head Mordechai Dehman and others, along with various sports and other government agency officials, totaling as many as close to 30.
Funds were allegedly paid to NGOs or agencies that were: not due to them, which were due to them but which contained lumped-in extra unauthorized funds split among the conspirators, or which were paid to secure public appointments or contracts.
Also, whereas the Holyland bribes moved forward a real estate project, which while surrounded by controversy, has provided certain benefits to the public (with some bribes even being directed to venerated groups such as Yad Sarah), it appears that the illegal funds transfers here benefited only the conspirators, not the public.
How could the present alleged conspirators have learned so little from the Holyland Affair? One point could be that it was counterbalanced not only by Liberman having no indictment in the Straw Companies Affair, but also by his acquittal in the Belarusian Ambassador Affair, a spin-off case accusing him of illegally receiving a tip-off from then-ambassador Ze’ev Ben-Aryeh regarding the Straw Companies investigation.
With regard to Kirschenbaum, it is poignant that she was not even questioned by police in that case despite possibly having key information, a blemish that the Jerusalem court noted as one of the reasons it was acquitting Liberman.
Perhaps this made Kirschenbaum and company over-confident, and one must remember that until late March, many believed Olmert would be acquitted in the Holyland case as well.
Some may have also felt empowered by Weinstein’s December 2013 decision not to appeal Liberman’s acquittal, throwing in the towel.
They may have misread Weinstein.
It appears that he was involved in the Kirschenbaum investigation already in July 2013, so when he waived appealing the Liberman acquittal six months later, in his mind (though we did not know), he was not necessarily giving up on all cases against Yisrael Beytenu-related corruption.
There is one more parallel to Olmert’s legal troubles that has yet to play out fully.
There are reports that the state has a lead witness who had been one of the key bribery middlemen and who taped conversations with other suspects regarding illegal transactions.
Whether this still anonymous state’s witness will take down Kirschenbaum and company as decisively as Holyland witness Shmuel Duchner and Talansky Affair retrial witness Uri Messer, and conversation recorder Shula Zaken, remains to be seen.
The negative outlook on all of this is that greed is a perpetual force that cannot be deterred, even by lengthy prison sentences like those issued in the Holyland case.
The more positive hope would be that Kirschenbaum and company misread which way the wind was blowing in a transition, at a time when the rules have changed.