A former Israeli prime minister is guilty of bribery. This is a serious matter, transcending all nuances, analyses and caveats. It is a sad day for Israel, and also a day of pride. Is Israel corrupt? The signs are mixed. On the one hand, a person once the most powerful in Israel’s public life was found guilty of taking money in exchange for favors. On the other hand, Israel is strong enough to investigate, prosecute, try, convict and punish the once-most-powerful person in Israel’s public life.
A couple of months ago, when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was acquitted of misconduct, I wrote an article for The New York Times in which I argued that too many investigations of people in high places have fizzled. One consequence of so many investigations that do not conclude with conviction is “the erosion of public trust in political leaders, even when they don’t deserve it,” I wrote. Another consequence is “the erosion of public trust in the legal system.”
I’m not yet certain what the March 31 verdict will do to the way the public views Israel’s legal system, but some consequences of the trial are already clear.
In recent months, some analysts and pundits were still toying with the ridiculous idea of Olmert as the “comeback kid” of Israeli politics. The former prime minister was among Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s harshest critics. He spoke quite harshly about Israel’s policies, about the way the government is handling the peace process and other issues — giving some people on the left the hope that one day, if he were acquitted, Olmert might become the savior of Israel’s left.
To be fair, there were many people on the left who found this idea absurd and even abhorrent, considering Olmert’s past (including a minor conviction in a previous trial). Nevertheless, others hoped for it, possibly because of a lack of other options. No one seemed capable of challenging Netanyahu, and Olmert — if found clean — could have been the one, or so they believed.
Obviously, this idea is now dead. Olmert was not popular even before the verdict, and I find it hard to believe that he could have gotten a mandate from the voters to become Israel’s prime minister again. But even in Israel’s crazy political atmosphere, a person cannot be both in jail and the leader of a ruling political camp. The Olmert hope is over — the Israeli opposition will be forced to look for someone else.
The legal system — that is, not the court, but rather the police and the state prosecutors — is rejuvenated by this verdict. Whether this is good news or not depends on one’s ideology and beliefs — I, for one, am not certain that more investigations of more politicians, more “affairs” and dramas, are what Israel needs. But one can’t argue with verdicts: The legal warriors won an important battle and deserve respect and the benefit of the doubt. This means that skeptics should now be more careful about doubting the justifiability of prolonged investigations and trials of public figures.
This conclusion is relevant on a daily basis. Not that there’s any comparison, but the current investigation of alleged sexual misdeeds by minister Silvan Shalom is troubling in many ways. A verdict like Olmert’s complicates Shalom’s possible defense: It makes an attack on the attorneys and detectives less viable as a line of public posture.
A year and a half ago, when Olmert was found guilty on one charge and acquitted of two others, I wrote another article for The New York Times questioning whether his alleged crimes were serious enough to justify the dethroning of a prime minister. “The Olmert prosecution was an instance of anti-corruption sentiment run amok,” I wrote. “A prime minister duly elected by the people was forced out of power by charges that a court has now rejected. And the consequences have been significant.”
While it is much harder to make that same argument now — a bribery conviction is not small change — the question still stands. Olmert was charged and convicted this week for deeds that precede his ascendency to prime minister. They are serious crimes, but not ones that affected — as far as we know — his function on the job.
And no, of course no sane Israeli would want his leader to be one that takes bribe money (or makes sure bribe money goes to his brother, as happened in this case). So, in retrospect, it is certainly good that Olmert was forced out. Yet, when we ponder the question of whether the result justifies the means — and the results are only revealed today, deep into the second term of the person elected to replace Olmert — we should not forget that in a democracy the verdict of the voter is sacred. Where to draw the line, where do charges of misconduct become so severe as to justify disregard for the wish of voters, is a very complicated question to answer.
Some Israelis are going to delude themselves into thinking that the Olmert verdict provided an ultimate answer to that question. It did not — as they will be reminded as soon as the next politician under investigation is acquitted.