Reporter's Notebook: Linguistics lesson in Holyland trial

Shula Zaken’s inconsistencies and emotional testimony keep the proceedings interesting.

olmert zaken 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
olmert zaken 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Former US President Bill Clinton’s testimony regarding his affair with Monica Lewinsky and obstruction of justice charges has been notorious for his attempt to escape perjury charges by saying, “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s bureau chief, Shula Zaken, may have just topped Clinton.
Zaken was hospitalized approximately a week ago following a day of testimony during which she had a nervous breakdown on the stand and admitted to illegally receiving NIS 100,000 in funds from the state’s main witness in the Holyland trial, Shmuel Duchner.
Maybe she should have stayed in the hospital longer.
Her manner on the stand on Thursday, while more coherent, was not much more stable.
Whether acting to gain sympathy or authentically nervous, her hands and voice shook throughout.
She paused mid-sentence several times, only to retract and then restart her answer along a completely different storyline.
Judges usually view much of the above body language as signaling less-than-truthful responses.
But this was not the most distinctive aspect of Zaken’s testimony, when – repeatedly – she not only tried to reinterpret what she had said, but over and over again completely abandoned her statements to police about her alleged role in receiving bribes personally and on behalf of Olmert from Duchner.
When asked if she had taken funds from Duchner for political- debt needs for Olmert or if and when she had received a number of expensive “gifts” from Duchner, or if Olmert knew certain facts about the gifts, which could incriminate him, she often told police, “it’s possible.”
“It’s possible” is almost universally regarded by lawyers as a potential partial admission, because a complete denial is accomplished by saying “no” or the flowery “lo haya vilo nivra” (“it never was and never happened”); an answer showing one is unsure and does not want to confirm anything is, “I don’t remember” or “I’m not sure.” Zaken redefined “it’s possible” not only to mean that “it’s possible that it did not happen,” but also, “it definitely never happened.”
If she had not been one of the most powerful women in the country, with top-notch legal advice and a second round after being certified by the hospital as sufficiently healthy to return to the witness stand, she might have been able to plead ignorance of the nuances of language.
But it appeared the court had expected that she, like Clinton, would have known better.
Zaken was quite comfortable on other points with people categorically not knowing things – explaining that she had not known that money she gave to Olmert ally Uri Messer was not needed to cover Olmert’s debts and that Olmert had not known that she had unnecessarily given the money.
More likely, Zaken’s interpretation of her earlier statements related to her “gray” understanding of the world.
Zaken explained why she broke down during her last time on the stand, which included essentially admitting that she had taken NIS 100,000 worth of bribes.
She said it was because she was embarrassed about having admitted to her partial romance with Duchner – although she unabashedly discussed it in great detail – and that she had not wanted to attack her and Olmert’s close ally, Uri Messer (for allegedly misleading her about Olmert needing money), who she then skewered.
All of these issues fall into the world’s “gray” area, said Zaken.
After putting on an emotional show in her first round on the stand, regardless of whether it helped or hurt her posture, her linguistics lesson to the court in her second round kept the proceedings interesting.