Two interesting facts emerged immediately following Ehud Olmert's verdict. The first is that a defendant has never before celebrated his own conviction and looked so happy about it. Never before in Israel have we witnessed such a spectacle.
The second is that for the first time since the state was established, a former prime minister has been convicted of a crime. This never happened before. All of the celebrations and shouts of joy from Israel's pro-corruption lobby, some of whom are firmly planted in the media, could not sweep this fact under the rug. Certainly not when confronted by the embarrassing mass of evidence in the Investment Center Affair.
True, due to reasonable doubt, Olmert was acquitted on the two central charges in the case. True, someone who is acquitted for reasons of reasonable doubt is not guilty. Even if you are unhappy with the verdict, it's important to accept this. One has to respect the court's decision, and I do respect it. But one can still be critical, raise questions, or express astonishment at some of the judge's decisions.
For instance, shouldn't one be astonished that the verdict gave a pass to a politician receiving envelopes of dollars from a businessman in need of his assistance? Is it acceptable for a politician to meet his benefactor in a hotel, as Olmert did in New York, and not report on the gift?
Apparently, a politician can also get away with depositing hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret bank accounts, claiming vaguely that the money is for political purposes, and not be required to prove how the money was actually used. Total lawlessness.
This verdict, if it is upheld, changes the rules of the game. It appears to open the door wide to governmental corruption, as well as personal corruption, and takes us back to those dark days we thought we had managed to escape. For years, legislators, prosecutors and judges have worked to instill better norms among public servants, and along comes a verdict that appears to revoke all their efforts.
As if just a year ago the Supreme Court had not delivered an ominous warning about politicians receiving envelopes full of cash. This warning was delivered in the context of the Supreme Court's rejection of former Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson's appeal of felony charges. I quote: "Systematic receipt of cash envelopes, without the money being openly documented in the corporation's reports, serves as a clear indication of irregularities. These cash envelopes are a warning sign. They place a burden on the person who receives the envelopes to prove the legality of the payments."
The judges of Israel's highest court made their opinion known, and still nothing happened. Olmert secretly received envelopes of dollars, time after time, and yet his trial barely scratched the surface of this issue. As if a politician taking bribes were a matter of course
Have we returned to the days when elected officials, including experienced legal experts, got off by claiming they didn't know, hear, understand or have any awareness of what was going on? That they did not have criminal intent? When smart people freely and willingly turned themselves into total imbeciles in the courtroom?
Have we returned to the 1990s, when the astonishing acquittals of several public servants and elected officials led Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, the oracle of Israeli criminal law, to analyze their trials under a microscope and demonstrate that the verdicts acquitting them were not serious?
Have we returned to the days when well-connected defendants masqueraded as petty functionaries and passed the blame onto their assistants, secretaries, friends, or some other fall guy willing to sacrifice himself for his boss?
Apparently so. After all, this is what Olmert claimed and this is what the judges decided: "There is a reasonable doubt regarding the psychological basis [of Olmert's deeds]. There is a reasonable doubt as to whether the defendant was aware of the link between his refraining from reporting the money and the state comptroller's satisfaction with the results of its investigation."
What they're trying to say is that the facts are correct, because the prosecution proved them, but that our interpretation of events differs from theirs: Olmert's actions fall short of criminal.
Have we returned to the days when the case against former Jewish Agency Chairman Simcha Dinitz was chock-full of solid evidence, and his controversial acquittal damaged the judicial system's credibility? To the days when Olmert himself was acquitted in the fictitious accounts trial? His partners were convicted, but even though he was proven to have signed a false financial statement, he was acquitted due to reasonable doubt.
Have we gone back to that dark place, in spite of the last five years when Moshe Lador led the state prosecutor's office to an amazing string of achievements?
We have, and I fear the situation will only grow worse. I fear that an experienced prosecutor, despite being familiar with the mountain of evidence against Olmert, will decide not to waste his time. If the startling evidence in Olmert's case was not enough to convict him, then other prosecutors may decide that other cases lack sufficient evidence as well. Instead, these cases must all be closed in quick succession, in the hope that the police eventually take the hint: Don't bother investigating well-connected public figures.
This could very well end up being the message conveyed by this verdict. Several of Olmert's political cronies were right to celebrate his acquittal with him on Tuesday. They are thinking of themselves as well, and will certainly be happy if there is no appeal. If something were to trouble this group of pals, I am guessing that would be it, and that is why they're making a lot of noise and ganging up against the state prosecutor, conducting a field trial against him.
Lador is a thorn in the side of those who specialize in defending government corruption. They realize he is likely to appeal. They understand that most of the facts in the case are not subject to debate, and it is only the legal interpretation of the facts that is up in the air. They understand that another set of judges might reach diametrically opposite conclusions.
Still, they have a problem. The judges did not criticize Lador. They expressed no reservations concerning the decision to indict Olmert. There's no cannon fodder, no ammunition and no bullets. Lador will be a hard man to bring down.
How will this battle end? I assume in the Supreme Court. This is likely because there is no debate over the facts in the case, and therefore the district court judges possess no advantage. The appeal judges at the Supreme Court can enter their shoes and examine everything from scratch.