Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is going to prison, says the judge. This is hardly a surprise: He was found guilty of taking bribes. It is a sad day, says President Shimon Peres, and of course it is. I trust Israel’s courts, says Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and of course we all trust them; there is no other option. I’m not guilty, says Olmert. You don’t expect anything else from a man who was just sentenced to a six-year prison term. He will deny; he will appeal and, if all else fails, he will go to prison. No one is going to claim that his sentence was a result of discrimination — as many did in the case of former minister Aryeh Deri. No political movement will seek his endorsement, no one, except close friends and family, will be waiting for him when he is released or attempt to reinstate him as a leader.
Israel has never before sent any of its prime ministers to prison — a technically challenging feat requiring high security inside the penitentiary. But it has sent high-ranking ministers and a former president and Knesset members. Corruption may be tempting for leaders in Israel, as it is tempting for leaders of many countries, but it is also dangerous for leaders in Israel, as it is in most well-organized countries. Earlier this week, a high-profile mayor decided to agree to a plea bargain and admitted he committed a misdeed; today it is Olmert and the other culprits of the Holy Land trial.
Olmert’s lawyers say that a six-year sentence is out of proportion, and Israelis will no doubt debate a lot about this claim in the coming days. But, really, making such a judgment call is not so easy. Out of proportion compared to what? To other similar cases? There are no other similar cases; there never have been other similar cases. As one ponders the pros and cons of sending Olmert to a long prison term, one has to first know the details of the law: What are the common terms in cases of bribery, what punishment do we usually prescribe to such types of criminal acts. But one also has to consider a moral-philosophical question: Does a prime minister deserve to be punished more severely than other citizens because he breached the public’s trust or does he deserve a lesser punishment because he has already paid dearly for his sins, as he was dragged through the public square, humiliated, diminished, demoted, falling all the way from the top?
And you also have to consider the Israeli public and its long-term interests. If Olmert serves such a long jail term, does that serve Israel? Does it make it better? Olmert is no Richard Nixon, and this trial isn’t Watergate, but remember that, in retrospect, the decision by President Gerald Ford to pardon Nixon has been considered a brave and timely decision. It is considered almost noble, even though at the time a large portion of the public was angry and perplexed.
Naturally, on such days we look for lessons. Don’t take bribes; don’t let the power of the office, any office, go to your head; respect the people, often annoying and self-righteous, who dedicate their time and energy to battling corruption.
But as we think about Olmert, we have to balance our vindictive instincts by remembering that Olmert, like most people, is not a cartoon. He did bad things, but these don’t necessarily eliminate the good things that he was able to accomplish. He took good care of himself, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that he didn’t also take good care of the country, or at least attempted to take good care of it. His longtime political opponents should remember that bribery is punishable, but holding different views is not. His longtime political supporters should remember that having been on their side on some matters doesn’t whitewash criminal acts.
You may think that Olmert was wrong on almost all matters and still think that a six-year term is more than necessary to make the point. And you may think that a six-year prison term is what he deserves and still think that Ehud Olmert got it right on many matters.