A reminder of why Israel is the United States’ only genuine democratic ally in the Middle East came today in the form of a story that is thought to be a black eye for the Jewish state. Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister of Israel and favorite of peace processors everywhere, was sentenced to six years in prison on corruption charges. Olmert’s downfall was as precipitous as it was unexpected. Political corruption is not unknown in Israel, but accusations against other political leaders had, with a few exceptions, rarely led to jail terms for those involved. Most savvy Israeli political observers seemed to have thought Olmert would also escape, especially since an earlier trial had resulted in a legal slap on the wrist for the slippery former PM rather than jail. But when his former top assistant dating back to his time as mayor of Jerusalem dropped the proverbial dime on him, it was clear that he had run out of “get out of jail free” cards.
This is good news for Israel since Olmert’s fate stands as a warning to the other members of the country’s political class that there are consequences for stealing. But it is also heartening for Americans to see again that although, like their own country, Israel is not perfect, it is still a nation where the rule of law prevails. Though the spectacle of a man with the Israeli equivalent of a Secret Service detail being hauled off to jail is sobering, the ability of the nation’s legal system to successfully prosecute a man who was not only powerful but well liked by its media as well as by the leaders of its sole superpower ally is proof that the Jewish state walks the walk about democracy and the rule of law. This provides not only a stark contrast to its undemocratic neighbors, but also gives the lie to the assumptions that are the foundation of the canards about it being an “apartheid state.”
The comparison between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries, including Hamas-ruled Gaza and the autonomous Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, is all too obvious. In a region of the world where governments are only changed via coups and murder and where concepts about the rule of law are often seen as an alien Western innovation, Israeli democracy stands out as a beacon that attracts even the admiration of those who profess to wish to destroy it.
But let’s understand that the claims that Israel is, in effect, a limited democracy that doesn’t afford equal rights under the law for all of its citizens is also undermined by what happened to Olmert. For all of the imperfections that are part of any democracy, Israel is a country with an independent judiciary and laws that are applied across the board. The false charges that it discriminates against Arabs are given the lie by the fact that even West Bank Arabs—who remain governed by the Jordanian laws that existed before 1967 or Palestinian Authority regulations—can appeal to the Israeli courts for justice against the Israeli army and government.
The rule of law in Israel is, as is also the case for the United States, a foundation for its democratic governance and its successful economy. Stating this seems obvious to the country’s friends and admirers. But at a time when it is increasingly under assault from those advocating boycotts against it, the reality of life in democratic Israel is often being obscured by the “apartheid” libels wielded by critics whose purpose is not reform but to destroy it. That is especially true on college campuses, where, as I wrote last week, BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions) advocates are seeking to stigmatize those who visit the country because those who do so learn the truth.
So rather than mourning the fall of a sleazy politician who behaved in the manner that we associate with American urban political machines rather than the heroic “warrior” culture we generally associate with Israeli leaders, the country’s friends should be celebrating this story. Whenever the rule of law triumphs, democracy is strengthened.