Ehud Olmert’s Political Chess Game
Politicians, like chess-masters, have strategies and tactics with cute names.”Ž
Late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used a variation of what we might call “The Pawn’s Gambit” to defend himself from charges of bribe-taking and misuse of funds.”Ž
“ŽSharon sacrificed his sons Omri and Gilad for prosecution. His lawyers claimed that Sharon, who was famous for his control of minute details, knew nothing of the activity of his pawns, his sons.
But it is another Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who has perfected chess-like tactics throughout a career marred with charges of illegal activities. In Olmert’s case, the strategy is well-known as the “Sicilian Defense.””Ž
In chess, the “Sicilian Defense” is about moving the correct pawn, but in political corruption, the “Sicilian Defense” is about NOT moving one’s tongue and getting others NOT to move their tongues. “Ž
“ŽSicily is the ancient home of the Mafia, and its code of silence is defined by the term “Omerta.” It means silence until death.
“O Merta” sounds and looks like the name Olmert, as in Ehud Olmert – a man who has faced at least three major criminal corruption trials. But the code of silence has been used by many politicians.”Ž
Yitzhak “Boogie” Herzog, now leader of the Labor Party opposition, clung to the code of silence when police investigated his then-mentor, Ehud Barak. It has been a black mark on Herzog’s record, which, for some reason, few reporters mention.”Ž
Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak has said that no serving politician – in the cabinet or in the Knesset – should be allowed to use the “right to remain silent.” Yes, politicians have rights, but citizens have a higher right to get answers from elected officials.”Ž
Aryeh Deri and other political convicts in the Shas Party also tried to follow the code of silence, but probably it is Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who has used this Sicilian Defense more than any other Israeli politician.”Ž
This is particularly ironic and vexing because Ehud Olmert first made his name on the Israeli scene as a young Knesset member crusading against the influence of Israeli crime families. He accused the late Rehav’am Ze’evi of having close ties with underworld figures.”Ž
But Olmert’s career as a crime-fighter ended fairly quickly, and over a long career, he has been charged repeatedly with using his connections in the Knesset, and later in the cabinet and in the “ŽJerusalem”Ž municipality, for personal gain.”Ž
In the Bank of North America case more than 20 years ago, Olmert narrowly avoided conviction, though the judges found his conduct reprehensible and convicted a co-defendant who did not speak ill of Olmert and went to jail – but not Olmert.”Ž
In a more recent affair, the State of “ŽIsrael Ombudsman, Judge Micha Lindenstrauss felt Olmert -a former trade minister as well as prime minister – had acted illegally in the Bank Leumi case. Judge Lindenstrauss also said Olmert tried to stonewall the investigation on this and other charges.
For his part, Olmert demanded that the Attorney General should order the police to investigate – wait for it – Judge Lindenstrauss. Olmert has insisted that his political foes have manipulated the legal system to hound him from office. “Ž
In more recent cases – Rishon Tours, the “ŽState Investment Center, and the Talansky Affair – three judges unanimously found that Olmert got envelopes full of cash. They convicted him on relatively minor charges but decided to give him the benefit of doubt on his explanations for the cash in the envelopes.
This partial and severely stained exoneration by reason of doubt stood on the decision of Olmert’s co-defendants, chiefly his confidential secretary Shula Zaken and his former law partner, Uri Messer, NOT to testify against him. Both Zaken and Messer stayed loyal to Olmert, keeping silent about him. “Ž
The three judges again flayed Olmert with their words, but he basically escaped a harsh sentence. The prosecution has appealed the verdict, and it is hoping for a Supreme Court reversal of the Circuit Court decision.”Ž
But at the eleventh hour, the Sicilian Defense may be cracking. Olmert’s secretary Zaken may be willing to break her silence about her life-long boss in the ongoing “Holyland” case involving influence peddling and alleged bribery in Jerusalem’s real estate markets – as well as the cases now on appeal.”Ž
Zaken’s motives are unclear. Obviously she does not want to go to jail, but until now she has kept quiet. Her friends say she is bitter that Olmert and his lawyers called her a liar. She always saw herself as Olmert’s most loyal aide, but Olmert’s lawyers painted corruption in Olmert’s inner circle as something about which Olmert had no clue.”Ž
This “clueless” defense seems weird but it has worked before. It worked for “ŽSharon (claiming he did not know about his sons who were his closest lieutenants), and it has worked a few times for Olmert.
Olmert’s secretary may also have finally realized that her loyal silence was going to land her with a lengthy prison term while former Prime Minister Olmert might again get off with a slap on the wrist.”Ž
Olmert and his attorneys will attack Ms. Zaken’s late decision to turn state’s evidence as being motivated by bitterness or a deal to save her from jail. They are right to raise these points, and it is clear that Ms. Zaken is far from an innocent by-stander in Olmert’s alleged crimes.”Ž
Ms. Zaken has already been convicted in earlier cases involving Olmert and also for playing a role in an attempted manipulation of tax authorities by her brother.”Ž
Olmert is right to attack Zaken’s credibility as part of his legal defense, but “ŽIsrael has a higher right to guard against corruption in high places. So, even if it means stretching usual court procedures, we should hear Ms. Zaken in open court explain her diary entries, including references to some mysterious fund transfers.
Let’s hope Israel’s top judges overrule the Sicilian Defense. Life is not a chess game.”Ž
Dr. Michael Widlanski is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat, published by Threshold/ Simon and Schuster. He teaches at Bar-Ilan “ŽUniversity, was strategic affairs advisor in Israel’s Ministry of Public Security, and is the Schusterman visiting professor at University of California, Irvine, for 2013-14.