MIDEAST: Olmert's Peace Plan May Go Down With Him

  • Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler (jerusalem)
  • Monday, August 31, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

The State Prosecution on Sunday filed serious charges in the Jerusalem District Court against former prime minister Ehud Olmert. He is indicted on a litany of corruption charges that include accepting bribes, fraud, breach of trust, falsifying documents and income-tax evasion.

The 61-page indictment concludes a lengthy criminal investigation that, a year ago, forced Olmert to resign. He remained in office as interim prime minister until new elections last February brought to power the ultra- nationalist government of Benjamin Netanyahu instead of Olmert's centrist coalition.

The charges stem from three main cases that were uncovered in the past few years as investigators explored evidence that led to a whole series of alleged misdemeanours. All the cases relate to the period when Olmert served as mayor of Jerusalem and as a junior government minister, but before he became prime minister in March 2006.

The most sensational case involves a Jewish fund-raiser in the U.S. from whom Olmert allegedly received over half a million dollars between 1997 and 2005, much of it cash stuffed into envelopes.

Olmert, then Jerusalem mayor and later a cabinet minister, is accused of concealing the money. He is charged with a major conflict of interest of abusing his influential position to promote his benefactor's private business interests in Israel and abroad.

In another case known as the 'Rishon Tours double-billing affair', Olmert is charged with fraudulently billing multiple institutions - state bodies and charitable organisations - for trips abroad in his capacity as government official. This is to have allowed him to build up a secret credit account with his travel agency. He is alleged to have used the more than 92,000 dollars amassed in this way to finance private and family travel.

The harsh indictment spells out the charges - 'abuse of his position and status, the scope of the fraud and the systematic manner in which it was committed over time, the fact that it was the result of an ongoing effort involving the systematic submission of dozens false documents, and the fact that some of the sums of money in question were obtained from the public coffers, and others from charitable organisations of a public character.'

Israelis like to pride themselves on the robustness of their democracy. The collective infuriation with Olmert is lumped together with anger directed against two of his former ministers - one of them his finance minister - who, coincidentally, will on Tuesday begin severe prison terms after being found guilty of various charges of theft, bribery and breach of trust.

'If Olmert is convicted, what these cases all have in common is that their offences put government above the law,' said legal commentator Prof. Ze'ev Segal of Tel Aviv University. 'The indictment (against Olmert) is an ethical document that sounds an alarm over serious government corruption.'

Also coincidentally Tuesday, the trial of former president Moshe Katsav on charges of rape and sexual harassment gets under way. He too was forced out of office prematurely.

All the cases are attributed to the zeal of Israel's Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz, who has become a nightmare of politicians and senior officials. Many Israelis - for whom politics has come to equal corruption - laud his unflinching commitment to root out what's now widely perceived as a plague in their society.

'It can reflect the depth of the corruption and decay of the Israeli political system. But it can also reflect the fearless attitude of the legal system toward politicians,' wrote political analyst Aluf Benn in Ha'aretz daily. 'It is still too early to tell whether the serial charges have also created a deterrent.'

Olmert himself has consistently denied any wrongdoing. Even when forced to resign last autumn, he used his time as interim prime minister to engage in a concerted effort to conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians. He insists a deal was 'definitely attainable' if only the Palestinians had accepted what he referred to as 'generous terms' for a final peace.

Those talks crowned Olmert's dramatic political shift from a right-wing nationalist to an ardent peace advocate who believed in territorial compromise with the Palestinians - even in Jerusalem. He repeatedly said that defining the borders of Israel within the context of a two-state solution was essential to Israel's survival.

But once the allegations of corruption grew louder, eventually forcing his resignation, his credo on peace with the Palestinians became irrelevant: Israelis simply stopped relating to him as a serious political force.

In his last interview in June, as Netanyahu was already prime minister, Olmert went so far as to disclose to Newsweek magazine that, in his talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he had actually offered the slaughtering of Israel's holiest cow - total and unilateral control of the whole of Jerusalem. Instead, he proposed the internationalisation of the walled Old City with its sites holy to the three monotheistic religions.

'I am not in power, but my ideas are in power. And, my ideas will prevail,' Olmert insisted.

For the past two decades, one Israeli prime minister after another has broken what had been one taboo after another in terms of what was considered 'acceptable' to Israel in order to advance peace.

But, so irrelevant was Olmert that his last statement did not create a storm, neither in Israel nor in the U.S.

Now, with a major new peace effort beginning to take shape under the stewardship of Barack Obama, is there yet a chance that Olmert's revolutionary proposal (in Israeli terms) can be built on?

The Palestinians have already conditioned peace talks with Israel being resumed from where they were left off by Olmert. But Olmert's successor has not only shelved the internationalisation idea - under Netanyahu, Israel's policy on Jerusalem has regressed dramatically into a 'hands-off what's ours' stance.

It will be an uphill task for the U.S. President to prove that Olmert's predictions about accommodation in Jerusalem will, in his words, 'remain in power'. Unlike him.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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