Historian Bernard Lewis once quipped that in the West one needed money to gain power, but in the Mid-East one needed power to really gain money.
Lewis’s comment was particularly true of Arab-Islamic regimes from Morocco to Persia, and Mid-East rulers and their friends almost always became rich when they came to power, but this was generally not true of Israel. That has changed.
A Jerusalem court’s mixed verdict on corruption charges against Ehud Olmert and the recent death of Yitzhak Shamir are a good time to examine how Israel’s top leaders have become more like their Arab-Islamic neighbors in at least this respect.
“They said there were envelopes with money, but there no envelopes with money,” declared a beaming Ehud Olmert after a court narrowly exonerated him on three corruption cases and found him guilty in one.
But Olmert’s assessment of his verdict was actually quite incorrect, because three judges unanimously found that he had indeed gotten envelopes with cash and other assorted corrupting favors, and that he acted improperly.
However, they determined that Olmert was entitled to the benefit of the doubt when he said he did not know the full details of the various gifts, claiming he believed they were campaign donations.
In not so ancient Israel leaders from David Ben-Gurion to Yitzhak Shamir left office without becoming millionaires, but recent leaders seem to have parlayed their time in office to become very wealthy (Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert) or just plain very comfortable around moneyed people (Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu).
When Ben-Gurion retired, he had a modest home on Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev. His successors Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir never amassed great financial fortunes or real estate holdings. Likud leaders were the same.
Menachem Begin lived in a frugal basement apartment for most of his career, and Yitzhak Shamir was known as someone who never took a vacation while he was on the public payroll.
Not surprisingly, financial corruption charges never touched any of these leaders, although Ben-Gurion’s wife, Paula, suffered from kleptomania and was known to grab things in stores. Ben-Gurion used to send someone to watch after his wife and to pay the bills quietly for the stolen items. Nobody made a fuss.
Another prime minister’s wife changed this. Leah Rabin used to tell her husband to enjoy the perks of office.
“Yitzhak, ke-sheh notnim lekha, kakch”—”Yitzhak, when someone gives you something, take it.”
Leah Rabin kept her own advice. She unashamedly took hand-outs from hoteliers, jewelers and fashion designers—even years after her husband was murdered by an assassin. Stories about her appetite for the good life were legend.
When Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994, Leah lost an earring at the signing site, and a large squad of Israeli soldiers was used to try to find the bauble, but Leah was also the source of Israel’s first major corruption scandal that cost Yitzhak Rabin his office.
Mrs. Rabin had a foreign currency account in Washington which she failed to close—as required by Israel’s laws at the time. Rather than letting his wife take the blame for the violation, Rabin said that he too was responsible and stepped down from his first term in office.
In Hebrew this is called, lehiyot rosh gadol—literally “to be a big head.” Actually it means to act with responsibility, not to be small-minded and not to throw blame on others.
One can compare the “big-minded” path of Yitzhak Rabin to the way Ehud Olmert acted with the four major corruption cases that were brought against him. In each of them, Olmert pleaded innocence by ignorance, allowing people close to him to bear the brunt of the accusations.
Olmert claimed that he did not know what his secretary and executive assistant Shula Zaken had done in his office. He said the same thing about his law partner Uri Messer, who frequently represented rich clients before Israeli authorities, something that led to frequent accusations that Olmert had used his government ties for profit.
Some of these same clients often gave Olmert various monies, usually not declared, which, when discovered, were claimed to have been personal loans from friends. Olmert was indicted and narrowly escaped conviction on one of these cases more than a decade ago, while some of his associates went to jail.
Olmert’s assistant, Ms. Zaken, was Olmert’s right-hand for more than 20 years, accompanying him to every job he ever had, probably closer and more loyal than the wives of most politicians, and many, if not most political observers found it hard to believe that Zaken had acted in any way without Olmert’s approval.
Aside from this current spate of corruption cases, Ms. Zaken and her brother were recently convicted in an influence-peddling scandal involving the offices of the Israeli tax authority.
In the current cases, Zaken was convicted on most charges against her, including deliberately double and triple-billing charitable organizations that paid for Olmert’s appearances, but she refused to testify in her own defense and effectively stymied prosecution attempts to get more evidence on Olmert.
Nevertheless, the prosecution built a strong documentary trail showing money and benefits leading to Ehud Olmert’s bank account and to his family.
When Olmert claimed he did not know some of the things his assistant Zaken was doing, the court said he was entitled to the shadow of doubt. Olmert also claimed that when an American businessman, Morris Talansky brought him envelopes of money, he (Olmert) did not know the details of the matter.
The prosecution charged that Olmert was essentially getting bribes, while Olmert said he thought Talansky was making a campaign contribution. The judges found that Talansky actually got personal favors from Olmert, but here, too, it said that Olmert was entitled to the shadow of doubt that he took the envelopes without criminal intent.
The judges, however, did not accept Olmert’s claims that he did not know about monies that went to his law partner, Uri Messer, from important clients who were essentially lobbying the Ministry of Trade while Olmert was the Trade Minister.
Olmert could face a short prison term on this charge of “violation of oath of office,” but most legal observers said it was more likely the judges will sentence Olmert to a period of forced service to the community.
Some of Olmert’s friends demanded the resignation of the top prosecutors, while Olmert’s aides said they hoped the verdict would allow Olmert’s return to politics, but this is not likely. If the judges rule that the conviction carries “shame,” then Olmert is effectively barred from politics for seven years.
Olmert also is currently on trial in another major case—a real estate scandal where he and his successor as mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lopoliansky, are said to have approved a huge project which violated all the previous norms of Jerusalem’s municipal zoning ordinances, in return for money and other favors.
Under Israeli law, the prosecution can appeal an exoneration just as a defendant can appeal a conviction, and it seems likely that the prosecution will try to have the exonerations overturned, as they hinge on the interpretation of law and criminal intent, not on the facts of the case.
For most of his adult life, Ehud Olmert has been a lawyer with a law firm that represented various clients before Israeli government authorities, frequently raising questions about conflicts of interest.
Olmert apparently never actually handled any cases either in court or in preparation for court, while at the same time serving as a member of Knesset or cabinet minister, and eventually as Jerusalem mayor and Prime Minister.
A few years ago Israeli law was changed to prohibit serving members of Knesset from actively working as lawyers and from lobbying or representing firms while in the Knesset.
For someone like David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir, such a law would not have been necessary.
Dr. Michael Widlanski, an expert on Arab politics and communications, is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat just published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He is a former reporter, correspondent and editor respectively at The New York Times, Cox Newspapers, and The Jerusalem Post, and he served Strategic Affairs Advisor in Israel’s Ministry of Public Security and as an advisor to Israeli negotiating teams in 1991-92 at the Madrid Summit and thereafter.