Analysis: Legal clouds, game changers and Olmert

If Olmert jumps into the ring, he will be taking a gamble, but he is in better shape than many predicted.

EHUD OLMERT 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
As election season kicks into gear, predictions for the future are still hazy, with a major legal cloud hovering over the field and a game-changing question still up in the air: Can and will Ehud Olmert run? At different times and under different storylines, there have been indications that Olmert could unite a Center-Left bloc to seriously challenge Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in a way no one else could.
There is no question that Olmert would have preferred elections to have been later.
Although he has beaten almost all of the charges and avoided a prison sentence in his Jerusalem District Court corruption trial, which concluded only weeks ago, there are still key loose ends – like appeals and an ongoing trial.
Critically, the issue of moral turpitude that could bar him from running for public office for seven years – which at his age of 67 would essentially end his career – continues to hang over him.
In September, the court passed on deciding the issue, leaving it for another time when elections were on the horizon. At the time, the judges might have assumed that such a day would not come for another year.
But as of this week, that time is now.
Already, Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely requested that the Central Elections Commission disqualify Olmert from running on Wednesday on the grounds that the actions which led to his conviction on the Investment Centers affair charges constituted moral turpitude.
This is a weak legal argument until Olmert himself actually formally announces he is running – as opposed to those trying to talk him into running like former Kadima MK Haim Ramon and current Kadima MK Dalia Itzik – but it creates bad publicity for him right when he is trying to gauge his current political appeal.
More importantly, if he does decide to run, it could stop him suddenly in his tracks.
This is also unlikely, as at the end of the day, he was cleared of all of the more serious crimes and convicted of only “breach of public trust” – and while the court said it is more than a “technical” issue, it is still not much more than the criminal law equivalent of jaywalking.
Another problem with barring Olmert from running is the strong opinion of the court justifying his lenient sentence on the basis that losing his post as prime minister and fighting in court for four years were punishment enough, especially where he was acquitted for the crimes that caused him to step down.
In an unrelated case on Wednesday, the High Court of Justice declined to fire top-level ministers for their involvement in the Carmel fire disaster, saying that the public should decide their fate. The election commission, chaired by Supreme Court Judge Elyakim Rubinstein, will most likely take the same tack here and say that the public should be left to judge, as the criminal offense was light and Olmert has already paid a heavy price.
Another wild card for Olmert is the state’s expected appeal to the Supreme Court, at the very least on the Talansky Affair charges of illegally receiving large amounts of cash in envelopes from a wealthy American supporter, and possibly on other issues as well.
Will the Supreme Court hear the appeal before voting, expected in late January? Normally appeals, especially on a case that took four years to complete, would take much more than a few months – possibly even years.
But what if the state makes a special push for a quick decision, as it had Talansky do in extremely unusual pre-trial testimony, because of the “public interest” in an appeal decision before the vote? It is very hard to predict whether the Supreme Court would cooperate or would view rushing the case as overly interventionist and an unnecessary departure from its standard procedures. A decision to intervene early could signal that the appeal has a chance.
But at the end of the day, the state has few issues of disputed law on which to appeal – and appeals usually lose, especially on disputed factual issues.
The last Olmert legal wild card is the Holyland trial, in which he is accused of accepting bribes and being part of a massive fraud for helping the Holyland residential project investors overcome legal and zoning obstacles.
It is highly unlikely that the case will conclude before voting and as of now the state’s main witness has been coming apart under cross-examination, making it appear that Olmert could dodge this bullet as well.
Still, it is a risk for Olmert to jump back into politics with this case hanging over his head. The only positive angle for him is that most of the headlines these days are in his favor since the case is at the cross-examination stage, whereas in July, when the state presented its case, he was being hammered with new allegations of bribes on a daily basis.
If Olmert jumps into the ring, he will be taking a gamble. But he is in much better shape than many could have predicted a short time ago. Now that elections are set, this may be his last chance to jump in.