MEDIA COMMENT: It’s good to have friends

How is it that Olmert is still walking free and few seem to think this is a travesty? Olmert is not alone; all those convicted in the Holyland affair have yet to go to jail.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (photo credit: REUTERS)
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced in March 2014 to a six-year jail term for accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. In March 2015 he was found guilty again for fraud and breach of trust in the context of the “money envelopes” affair and was sentenced to a further eight months in jail. But Olmert has yet to spend a single day in prison. His trusted aide, Shula Zaken, has already completed her jail term.
How is it that Olmert is still walking free and few seem to think this is a travesty? Olmert is not alone; all those convicted in the Holyland affair have yet to go to jail.
This sad state of affairs comes in the wake of a decision of Supreme Court Justice Noam Solberg in September, 2014, to accept Olmert’s plea for a stay of sentence until a decision is made on his appeal to the court.
Solberg noted that on the one hand “it is in the public interest that court sentences be imposed immediately, and one has an uncomfortable feeling when seeing someone who has been found guilty and sentenced to prison walking around freely in the city streets.” Yet, he added, “the public’s trust depends also on defending the rights of those who have been accused and found guilty of crimes. A jail sentence which is found to be after the fact unjustified of course harms the individual but it also undermines the public trust in the rule of law and the justice system. The law has given the right of appeal and it is necessary to enable realization of this right.”
He noted that although the District Court’s decision seems to be substantiated and that most of the accused will ultimately serve their sentences, nevertheless, “there are a few claims by the appellants which deserve a hearing.” Over a year has passed since then, and the Supreme Court does not think that it is making a travesty of the law by allowing convicted criminals to escape imprisonment.
Compare the Holyland affair to that of president Moshe Katsav. On December 30, 2010, Katsav was convicted in the District Court for rape and indecent assault of an employee in the Tourism Ministry and sexual harassment of several other women. On March 22, 2011, Katsav was sentenced to seven years in jail, an additional two years’ suspended term and NIS 125,000 in compensation payments to the women he harmed. Katsav appealed to the Supreme Court. He, too, received a stay of sentence. Justice Yoram Danziger also noted then that his appeal was not without merit. However, the court decided on November 10, 2011, to reject it and a month later Katsav began serving his jail term.
Can we imagine what would have happened in the Israeli press had Katsav’s case been deferred by the Supreme Court for over a year? Indeed, the press was one of the major players in Katsav’s conviction. It repeatedly demanded his prosecution. Attorney general Menachem Mazuz was roundly criticized for his handling of the affair. When Olmert almost got off scot-free in the first round of the Talansky affair the media was joyful.
The bon mot was that Olmert would now be able to return to the leadership of Israel’s progressive democratic forces for peace. Yoav Yitzchak was a sole voice in the wilderness. Even today, after Olmert’s conviction, the media does nothing to demand that justice be not only handed down, but carried out.
This travesty by the Supreme Court is not limited to Olmert and company.
Consider the case of former Ramat Gan mayor Zvi Bar. On February 26, 2015, Bar was found guilty for accepting two million shekels in bribes from construction companies. He was also found guilty of attempting to subvert the investigation, tax fraud and breach of trust. District Court Justice Zvi Gurfinkel noted in his judgment that “the severity of the decision is a result of the substantial sums Bar took for himself, his behavior is not what is expected from a mayor.” Bar, who is over 80, was the mayor of Ramat Gan for 24 years. On June 4, Bar was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in jail. Like Olmert, Bar claims to be completely innocent, and appealed to the Supreme Court on September 9. Supreme Court Justice Zvi Silbertal decided to give an interim decision to stay the sentence until his request of stay of sentence is accepted. Three weeks have passed, and the court has not even decided whether to accept his request for stay of sentence.
This story repeats itself also in the case of Bat Yam mayor Shlomo Lachiani, but with a different twist.
On September 30, 2014, Lachiani, who previously was found guilty of fraud and breach of trust, was sentenced to six months of public service, infamy and a fine of NIS 250,000. In contrast to the previous cases, Lachiani admitted guilt and cooperated with the prosecution. Yet, on November 13, 2014, the prosecution appealed the lightness of the sentence to the District Court. The appeal was accepted, and on April 27 this year, the court sentenced Lachiani to eight months in jail, starting June 1. The president of the Tel Aviv District Court, Devorah Berliner, was very clear, writing, “The public trust... is based on the assumption that its servants carry out their duties for the sake of the public honestly and with clean hands... In this case, we must agree with the prosecution that the breach of public trust borders on bribery.”
Lachiani’s lawyers know their business, and of course appealed to the Supreme Court. On May 12, Supreme Court Justice Uri Shoham accepted the appeal for stay of sentence.
Lachiani has yet to spend a day in jail. Interestingly, while researching this article, we found that Israel’s premier criminal issues journalists did not even know whether Lachiani was serving his sentence or not.
This is then the new norm set by the Supreme Court. Bribery is not deemed to be sufficiently criminal to impose immediate implementation of a jail sentence. The Supreme Court, knowingly, is allowing a whole slew of criminals to roam our streets freely.
Katsav violated the sanctity of other people’s lives and was sentenced rather quickly. Yet, at the end of the day, Katsav injured a handful of women – he did not leave behind him a monument of criminal activity such as the Holyland complex in Jerusalem or the various buildings in Ramat Gan.
These are with us to stay.
They are a monument to a press which allows the Supreme Court to get away with making a travesty of the judicial system with impunity and without criticism. Worst of all, it will symbolize for years to come the deep contempt our Supreme Court has for the rule of law.
The authors are vice chairman and chairman respectively of Israel’s Media Watch (