Corruption Trials Shake Israeli Politics

Ehud Olmert in court i i

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrives in court for the start of his corruption trial Friday. Olmert is accused of bribery and fraud. Amit Shabi-Pool/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Amit Shabi-Pool/Getty Images
Ehud Olmert in court

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrives in court for the start of his corruption trial Friday. Olmert is accused of bribery and fraud.

Amit Shabi-Pool/Getty Images

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appeared in a Jerusalem courtroom Friday for the opening of his trial on corruption charges. The first hearing was brief, but the session marked a historic precedent: the criminal prosecution of a man who was Israel's highest elected official.

Olmert proclaimed his innocence on charges of fraud, breach of trust and failure to report income. "I come here as a man innocent of any crime, and I believe I will leave here as a man innocent of any crime," he said.

If found guilty, Olmert, 63, could face a prison term of up to five years on the fraud charge alone. His trial will resume in February.

Olmert, who left office in March, is the first prime minister of Israel to stand trial for corruption. The high-profile trial raises broader questions about the country's political culture, which had been studded with scandals over the past decade.

In June, Olmert's former finance minister was sentenced to five years for embezzlement, and another of his Cabinet officials got four years for taking bribes.

Israel's former president, Moshe Katsav, is on trial on charges of rape and sexual harassment.

Calls To Clean House

The spate of charges against politicians stirred a public outcry in Israel, with demands that the political parties should clean their own houses. Columnists in major news media demanded to know why the nation's political culture was so corrupt.

Analyst Daniel Levy says there is a sense in Israel that the political class protected its own for too many years. "That red lines and consequences were not laid down over a long period of time, which encouraged this kind of abuse," he says.

Levy, a former adviser to the Israeli government who is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, says the Israeli political system has some built-in problems that contribute to corruption. He says the parliamentary structure often forces major parties to form coalitions with small "boutique parties" that elect their leaders according to parochial interests.

Some members of the small but influential Shas party, for instance, continued to support party leader Aryeh Deri, even after he was convicted in 2000 of taking bribes while he was Israel's interior minister. Most Shas members are ultra-Orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern descent who see their party as an expression of ethnic solidarity.

Israel's current foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is leader of the Israel Beiteinu party, composed largely of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He retains strong support within his party, despite a criminal probe that recommended he be indicted for bribery. Lieberman says he is innocent and that there is a police conspiracy against him.

Despite strict campaign-finance laws, Levy says there are potentially vast sums of money available from wealthy Americans who support various factions in Israel. The result, says Levy, is that "you have a system rife with all kinds of ways of trying to get around campaign-finance limits."

David Makovsky, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the latest corruption charges come at a time when public opinion in Israel is ripe for reform. Israel, he says, is a country with socialist origins, whose early leaders led "very modest, very simple lifestyles."

"The foibles of politicians have come under exceptionally sharp scrutiny," he says. "[The Israeli public] does hold leaders to a high standard."

Olmert Accused Of Bilking American Jewish Groups

Some of the charges against Olmert are that he scammed from good causes to support a highflying lifestyle.

Most of the charges stem from Olmert's time as mayor of Jerusalem and as a Cabinet minister. He's accused of double- and even triple-billing American Jewish groups for travel expenses when he came to the United States for speeches.

Prosecutors say Olmert bilked groups such as the Israel Policy Forum, the America-Israel Friendship League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center out of thousands of dollars.

Yet neither Makovsky nor Levy sees Olmert's trial as necessarily ending his political career. "It may well turn out that Olmert does not go down," Levy says, adding that the case is complicated and the former prime minister has a very strong defense team.

If he is not convicted, Makovsky says Olmert could make a comeback because of his experience. He says it comes down to a difference in how Israelis and Americans look at their politicians. "Between the novel and the experienced, Americans will pick the novel," Makovsky says, "an Obama from Illinois, or a Clinton from Arkansas."

"Israelis tend to go for the experience," he adds, "because in their view they live in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the world, and they want experienced leaders."

In that sense, Makovsky likens Israeli politics to the old-fashioned carnival shooting gallery, where an endless line of duck-shaped targets parades in front of the shooters. "They get shot down, they go to the back of the line. When the next guy gets shot down, they come back up," he says.

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