Monday, 31 August 2009

Olmert's Indictment: Secular Justice or a Sign from God?

By Matthew Kalman / Jerusalem
Monday, Aug. 31, 2009

On the eve of the 2001 Israeli general election that would sweep Ariel Sharon to power, Ehud Olmert, then the mayor of Jerusalem and Sharon's right-hand man, explained why the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had been brought down. Olmert pointed out that, at the Camp David peace talks, Barak had offered the Palestinians almost all the West Bank and half of Jerusalem. Olmert declared, "This shows that anyone who dares to raise his hand against Jerusalem will be wiped out."

Now Olmert himself has been "wiped out." Months after offering the Palestinians a deal similar to Barak's, he was forced to resign last year as Israel's prime minister over a string of corruption allegations. On Sunday he became the only Israeli prime minister ever indicted on criminal charges, part of a scandal that will prevent him from returning to power anytime soon.

The 60-page indictment charges Olmert with multiple counts of fraud, breach of faith and deception. Prosecutors say Olmert double-billed for trips abroad on behalf of various charities and public bodies, including the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, and received tens of thousands of dollars in cash payments from Long Island financier Morris Talansky. Olmert vigorously denies the charges and says he will fight to clear his name.

Many religious Israelis believe that Olmert's woes are a divine punishment for reneging on his promise never to divide Jerusalem. According to one poll, more than a quarter of all Israelis and a majority of the religious, believe that Ariel Sharon's massive stroke in January 2006 was a punishment for ordering Israel's withdrawal from Gush Katif in Gaza in 2005 and considering a Palestinian state. "No question about it," Rabbi Shalom Dov Wolpe, a leader of the Chabad Hasidic movement in Israel told TIME. "He fought against the people of Israel, against the land of Israel, against the Torah of Israel, against God." Olmert, says Wolpe, "is getting his punishment."

But there may be a more earthly kind of justice at work. Olmert is the fourth senior Israeli politician to face criminal charges in the past year. Former president Moshe Katsav is on trial for rape (he has denied the charge); Olmert's former finance minister Avraham Hirschson was sentenced to five years for theft and money laundering; and former health minister Shlomo Benizri of the Shas Party is about to start a prison sentence for bribery. "It reflects the growing toughness of the enforcement agencies, their ability and their will to confront the highest ranks of politics in order to root out corrupt people," says Professor Moshe Maor of the Hebrew University.

Secular justice, nevertheless, can still have apocalyptic repercussions — in this case for Olmert's party. Kadima leaders were torn between their loyalty to Olmert, who founded the party with Sharon in 2005, and their desire not to be tainted by the criminal prosecution. "On this difficult day, we must not forget Olmert's rich contributions," said Kadima legislator Yoel Hasson. But Kadima's right wing could take advantage of the crisis to split the party and cross over to the Likud, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying to woo them for months. Such a move would bolster Netanyahu's shaky coalition that depends for its survival on small, right-wing parties that champion unlimited Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

"There's a whole shift in the political spectrum. We could be, if Netanyahu handles this correctly, on the verge of a new political dynamic," says political commentator Moshe Dann. "Kadima are fighting among themselves. If Netanyahu can convince members of Kadima that it is in their and the national interest to join his government, he will ensure his survival, eliminate Kadima as a serious rival, and establish himself as Israel's most important political leader."

It was Olmert's resignation and the subsequent ouster of his center-right Kadima party from government earlier this year that resurrected Netanyahu's career. Now his coalition's opposition to territorial concessions in the West Bank has put it on a collision course with the Palestinians and the Obama administration. Some Israelis continue to see the hand of God in all this. Settler leaders said they hoped that Netanyahu, whom they forced from power in 1999 for making concessions to the Palestinians at the Wye River peace summit, would take note. Says David Ha-Ivri, spokesman for the Samaria Regional Council, a settler organization: "We always hope that the fear of God will protect public officials from making bad moves. In our belief and understanding, eroding away our rights on the land of Israel is a bad move. I hope that this reflects on Netanyahu and strengthens him in the position of holding on to the land of Israel."

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