Rules of ethics for public figures, and Ehud Olmert

As long as Ehud Olmert refuses to understand that his public conduct was ethically problematic, his return is not welcome.

Former PM Ehud Olmert after verdict 370 (photo credit: Emil Salman/ Pool)
Former PM Ehud Olmert after verdict 370
(photo credit: Emil Salman/ Pool)
On January 11, 2005, Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz appeared before the Zamir Committee for the Preparation of New Rules of Ethics for MKs. Mazuz had asked to address the Committee about the need, in his opinion, to extend the application of the Rules of Ethics to the grey area between the criminal and the ethical.
Among the reasons he gave for his position were that too many criminal charges against public figures were being brought to the over-worked courts which could be dealt with satisfactorily as ethical complaints, and that on occasion the State Attorney’s Office decides to press criminal charges, but the courts rule that the case is marginal, the defendants are acquitted, and public figures whose conduct is problematic, even if not criminal, are allowed to go scot-free.
This is, in fact, what happened in the trial of former prime minister Ehud Olmert with regards to the charges against him in the Rishon Tours and Talansky cases.
Of course, we do not know whether the State Attorney’s Office would have selected the ethical course if such an option had been available to it.
However, it did not have this option. Though the Zamir Committee agreed with Mazuz that the rules of ethics for MKs ought to be toughened up, the recommendations that it submitted in December 2006 were greatly watered down by a subcommittee of the Knesset House Committee, but even this watered-down version has been mothballed.
A similar fate befell the recommendations of the Shamgar Committee for the Formulation of Rules of Ethics for Members of the Government, published in December 2007. Though Olmert, as prime minister, promised to adopt the recommendations, he did nothing before resigning in September 2008 against the background of the investigations against him.
After assuming office, Netanyahu appointed a Ministerial Committee under Justice Minister Ya’akov Neeman to reconsider the recommendations. In December 2010 the Neeman Committee issued a sterile version of these recommendations that turned the whole issue of ministerial ethics into something of a joke.
Prof. Ze’ev Segal bemoaned this result in one of the last op-ed articles he wrote before passing away in January 2011, concluding that “the ministers ought to recognize that stringent adherence to rules of public ethics is a good way to keep themselves clear of criminal entanglements. Only a very fine line separates ethical violations from the kind of acts that result in ministers standing trial on charges of breach of trust.”
Though Olmert has, at least for the time being, been exonerated of the most serious charges brought against him, he certainly could have saved himself a good deal of aggravation had he paid more heed to the issue of ethics. True, as pointed out above, Olmert agreed to adopt the recommendations of the Shamgar Committee. However, throughout his political career, his attitude towards rules of ethics and ethical conduct were somewhat problematic.
On July 15, 1987, Olmert appeared before the Tunic Committee, that dealt with the issue of how to apply the principle of prohibiting MKs to engage in additional paid occupations (a principle that was in fact adopted only in 1996) within the framework of the Rules of Ethics for MKs.
In general, Olmert suggested that the problem of the ethics of public figures in Israel was much exaggerated, and claimed that the public debate on the issue, especially by the media, was infected by hypocrisy and an atmosphere of aleihum (“get them” in Arabic) against public figures. He also said that in his opinion the value of rules of ethics was limited, bringing as an example the case of the US Congress where, even then, very stringent rules were in force, but corruption, according to him, was nevertheless rife.
As to prohibiting MK to engage in additional paid work, Olmert was one of its fiercest opponents, claiming that one could usually trust the MKs to refrain from conflicts of interest, and that in his experience the best MKs are usually those who continued to pursue their professional careers.
He further argued that if MKs were forced to forgo their extra-parliamentary professional activities, since quite a few of them (including himself) were used to handsome incomes from these activities, there was a danger of some resorting to the acceptance of payment for services rendered in back-handed ways, which would be tantamount to receiving bribes, but that it would be very difficult to prove that this was actually going on, because this is not something that people are inclined to admit to.
Olmert is yet to be exonerated of taking bribes in the Holyland Affair. However, there is no doubt that had he taken the issue of ethics more seriously – refusing, for example, to accept cash envelops of unclear origin and for unreported purposes, refraining from intervening on behalf of persons delivering such envelopes or the clients of friends, or paying closer attention to what members of his team were doing to serve his welfare and interests – he might still have been prime minister today.
Though I believe that policy-wise Israel would be much better off today if Olmert were still prime minister, as long as he refuses to understand that his public conduct was ethically problematic, even if on the whole not criminal, and that it is he himself, and not the state attorney, who is to blame for his tribulations – his return to public life is not welcome.
The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.