On Monday, Israelis were treated to the awful spectacle of a former prime minister starting a jail sentence. After a drawn out appeals process, Ehud Olmert, who served as Israel’s leader from 2006 to 2009, began serving a 19-month sentence on corruption charges. He’ll be housed in a special wing of one of the country’s largest prisons along with the other white-collar criminals that can be trusted to live with a man that was privy to the country’s national security secrets. Among the few prisoners who fit into that category is Moshe Katzav, who is serving out a sentence for rape.
The idea that a former prime minister and president are currently doing time is a discouraging one for the Jewish state and its friends. But though the crimes committed by both Olmert and Katzav provide a not very attractive portrait of some members of the country’s leading politicians, Israel’s supporters should actually take some grim satisfaction from their humiliation. Say what you want about the intemperate and sometimes downright crazy nature of Israeli politics, as well as the unfortunate tone of much of its discourse or the not particularly elevated nature of its popular culture. What happened to Olmert proves that, for all of its flaws, Israel is a country where the rule of law still reigns supreme.
Olmert is a product of the generation that came just after Israel’s founders and the contrast between his behavior and his predecessors speaks volumes. Whereas men like David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin lived simply, if not as ascetics, Olmert always lived large. And in contrast to many of his colleagues who spent their formative years in senior military positions (or his successor Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been a commando as a young man and then served in diplomatic posts until getting elected to the Knesset), Olmert was a hotshot lawyer and political fixer. Like other American journalists who met and interviewed him, I always thought that unlike most top Israeli politicians, Olmert seemed to be a very familiar type and would have fit in nicely in any urban political machine in the United States.
It is interesting that, even as he entered jail, Olmert was not only still denying his guilt but also claiming that his downfall was a political conspiracy. His intention is to muddy the waters of public opinion to rebuild his tarnished legacy. That is, of course, nonsense. If anything, the pace of the investigation of his crimes while serving as mayor of Jerusalem was slowed by the fact that he was pushing ahead with the peace process and some in the judicial establishment were loath to disrupt his administration because of ethical lapses. Indeed, there were many in Israel that thought the investigations of Ariel Sharon’s sons’ dubious ethical behavior (which eventually led to a corruption conviction for one of them) was also held back because of his decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza as he began his journey from the right to the center.
Olmert’s claims that the corruption case unfairly ended his political career are also absurd. Though he entered office on the coat tails of the fallen Sharon after the former general was stricken by illness, Olmert was among Israel’s least popular prime ministers. His disastrous conduct of the 2006 Lebanon War sealed his political fate and, even a year later when I saw him in his office, he was in full bunker mode. At that point, his poll ratings were in the single digits — actually within the pollsters’ margin of error — leading some wags to question whether anybody, including the prime minister’s wife, actually approved of his conduct in office. But as a former Likudnik who joined the peace camp, Olmert remained popular with American liberals and is, no doubt, hoping he can resume getting lucrative speaking fees from credulous Jewish groups after he is eventually sprung from jail.
But the real lesson about Olmert is not so much about his future prospects as it is about the triumph of justice. Olmert’s attitude toward his transgressions was the same we hear from a lot of American politicians who are caught behaving badly: everybody does it. His routine corruption and confidence that he could bribe witnesses into silence (for which he was also convicted) are depressingly familiar. But despite all the factors that might have led Israeli prosecutors into giving him a pass, they pressed ahead and, despite the difficulties of nailing an influential and wealthy individual who could afford a top defense team, they won.
The contrast between Israeli law and what goes on in the Palestinian territories is instructive. The Palestinian Authority is a notorious kleptocracy as Fatah officials run the West Bank in a manner more befitting mafia chieftains than political leaders. PA President Mahmoud Abbas is, after all, currently serving the 11th year of the four-year term to which he was elected in 2005.
But we don’t have to compare Israel to the Palestinians or the corruption of other neighboring Arab countries where the rule of law is a myth. Americans need to remember how we give some of our leaders a pass when it comes to breaking the law. President Bill Clinton’s perjury under oath was excused as just being about sex. His wife Hillary’s blatant violations of U.S. security regulations for handling classified and top secret material would land any lesser being than the former secretary of state and likely Democratic Party presidential nominee in jail. Indeed, many in the security apparatus, even famous people, have been disgraced for less. Just ask former general and CIA director David Petraeus if you don’t believe me.
Yet there aren’t many who think the hold of the rule of law in this country is strong enough for the administration to give Mrs. Clinton the same treatment others receive. I don’t think Hillary Clinton must go to jail in order for Americans to be able to claim that their judicial system is as impartial as that of Israel. But if she gets a pass for law breaking, it will be a blot on the honor of the Justice Department.
American justice is generally the envy of the world, and we know that of Israel is imperfect. But the sight of Olmert heading to jail where he’ll share a cellblock with Katzav is a reminder of the Jewish state’s high standards and ability to treat the mighty as being just as accountable as the marginal. When the dust settles on the Clinton email scandal, let’s hope Americans can say as much of their justice system.