Olmert’s real punishment is the process
By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM — Some years ago, my friend Malcolm Feeley published The Process is the Punishment. It deals with criminal charges against individuals at the lower end of America’s urban communities, widely viewed as guilty, but who manage to be judged not guilty or to have their cases thrown out of court. The process itself, including sitting in jail waiting for their day in court, was the punishment. Often it was repeated time and again in the case of individuals whose lives–likely to be shortened by violence–consisted of revolving between tough times on the street–on or over the lines between legality and illegality–and yet another process that added to their punishment whether or not they were found guilty and sent to prison.
We are seeing a similar process at the peak of Israel’s government.
Accusations against Ehud Olmert, former mayor of Jerusalem, Prime Minister, and minister in charge of several other government departments, has long been accused of irregularities. Details have dealt with giving government contracts to political allies, double-billing travel expenses, receiving sizable sums of cash, and bribes in exchange for governmental decisions that provided considerable profits to individuals who paid for them.
Involved in the story is a younger brother with an impressive reputation in Israel as as political analyst attached to distinguished academic institutions, who found himself in debt due to non-academic activity. He left the country, perhaps to escape debt collectors who could be rough, and may have received some of the money his older brother collected in less than legitimate ways.
Also involved is a woman who served as Olmert’s assistant over the course many years and several government functions. She is accused of some wrong doing linked to accusations against Olmert, and some for using governmental connections to help her businessman brother and others.
So far Olmert as well as his assistant appear to be punished more by the process than by convictions for serious offenses and harsh sentences.
Although Olmert’s supporters and attorneys have spoken of “innocence” with respect to the latest court decisions, there is no justice in their claims. The judges noted the appearance of improprieties, but ruled that prosecutors did not prove illegal intentions beyond the level of doubt required in criminal cases.
On one item the verdict was guilty, with the process of determining punishment to begin in two months.
The principal punishment consists of several years of police investigations, resignation as Prime Minister on account of the process, a long trial, the likelihood of further hearings and appeals, along with an ongoing trial in another court concerning large bribes said to be paid for decisions concerned with a prominent real estate development in Jerusalem.
Olmert has aged noticeably during the process, but that may be due more to a natural process rather than to activities of the police, prosecutors, and judges. He has remained active after resigning as Prime Minister. He has lectured overseas, participated n prestigious conferences in Israel, and has provided advice to key players in ongoing political maneuvers.
The most recent decision covers 900 pages, with a summary of 40 pages read out loud by the judges.
Israeli media gave itself over to the details from the early morning of the decision. Commentators speculated on what was likely. Changing headlines on Internet news sites reported when Olmert left his home, when he arrived at the court house, the entrance of his co-defendant, their attorneys, prosecutors, and the three judges. The regular 9 AM news program on the most popular radio station gave way to detailed reports about the opening of court. Reporters sitting in the court passed to reporters outside details of the judge’s ongoing reading of the summary verdict, and commentators weighed in with instant thoughts about pieces of the verdicts, what some claimed was the overreaching of the prosecutors, and what may come next in procedures dealing with the punishment handed out for those parts of the indictments where the defendants were found guilty. Will there be jail time, an exclusion of Olmert from further government office, or a slap on the wrist and a sentence of a few months’ community service?
The time required for the sentencing phase, possible appeals by the prosecutor and the defendants, as well as that ongoing other trial may well consume several more years of Olmert’s life.
Even if the major punishment will be the process, that it may be appropriate. Ehud Olmert has been close to if not over the line of improprieties during a long career in several government offices. So far the verdicts have been close to, but not over the line of being found guilty on major transgressions.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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