Analysis: Olmert didn't bow out due to legal issues

Former PM was exonerated on all charges except for the minor charge of breach of public trust.

EHUD OLMERT 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
It is hard to say what the exact constellation of considerations was that made former prime minister Ehud Olmert decide to bow out from running in the current elections.
But despite his mentioning of legal problems in an interview with Channel 2 news on Saturday night, it is highly unlikely that his legal issues were the primary consideration.
Maybe in June that would have been the prediction.
Olmert was expected by many to be convicted in the Jerusalem corruption trial for at least some actions of fraud in the Rishon Tours and Talansky affairs, and to possibly spend time in jail.
But then Olmert was exonerated on all of the numerous charges except for the minor charge of breach of public trust in the Investment Center affair.
While this was definitely a crime, it essentially came down to Olmert using his position as a minister in situations where he had conflicts of interest, the criminal equivalent of jaywalking.
Back in June, it was presumed by many that Olmert would spend extra time in jail as he was accused of having accepted millions of shekels in bribes in the Holyland trial, with an insider state witness loaded with a mound of documentary proof.
But then the key state witness, referred to as S.D. under a gag order, turned out to be an unreliable loose canon.
He may destroy the state’s case with his seeming over-excitement at attacking every municipal politician for decades as involved in Holyland and other scandals, and his confusion regarding numerous key details in the case.
It is already clear that he has lost serious credibility in the eyes of the court, a problem which can be fatal for a case.
Some of the other 15 defendants who are more central to the case may still go down, but Olmert – aside from being the most famous defendant – was always a side story from the perspective of the case itself, and was always multiple layers removed from actually having received the alleged bribes himself.
Olmert’s former bureau chief, Shula Zaken, has more serious problems in the case, allegedly having regularly acted as his front for receiving and discussing the bribes, but she has shown more than once that she is willing to go down to protect him from any allegations (presuming she knows things she is not telling the prosecution).
It is true that the state has appealed Olmert’s acquittals in the Jerusalem corruption case to the Supreme Court.
But it is far from clear that the court would have ruled on the appeal before election day.
Also, Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, in his capacity as head of the electoral commission, already denied a request to disqualify Olmert from running.
It is true that the question he was looking at was not the same as what the Supreme Court will examine and the request was not filed by the state, but it does not bode well for the state that the request was denied.
If it was a borderline case, Rubinstein certainly could have waited to rule until the Supreme Court ruled, but he did not.
Moreover, while Olmert certainly had cause for concern over how the bad press about the ongoing appeal against him to the Supreme Court would impact his political standing during election season, the appeal itself has been called objectively weak by many.
Most commentators who say that Olmert was guilty argue that the state wrecked the case, in that it was unprepared for key witness Moshe Talansky to fall apart and was overly optimistic and reliant on the idea that it could turn Olmert’s lieutenants against him.
Many commentators have said that the state needed to appeal because they believed Olmert was guilty and that the state should exhaust all possibilities, including appealing, to try to convict him.
But few, even among those who presume Olmert’s guilt, have said that the state’s actual appeal is strong and likely to succeed on objective legal grounds.
There are no new real legal arguments. It is mostly repackaged what the state argued below and no higher court likes to override a lower court just based on the same factual arguments.
The reason is that the lower court is the one that sees the witnesses and hears the testimony firsthand, whereas the Supreme Court just gets a transcript of the lower court testimony.
You never know what the Supreme Court may decide and the state did prove many problematic behaviors by Olmert at trial, but the appeal’s overall low likelihood of success means it was likely not his primary consideration for bowing out of running.
This is not what Olmert said in his interview about his decision not to run. But placing significant blame for not running on a personal crusade by the state against him is one way to sidestep the political challenges he was confronting.