The corruption trial of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert took an unexpected turn today (Thursday, 6/24) when the chief judge of the Jerusalem district court assailed the prosecution for submitting what appeared to be misleading and possibly false documentation.
Olmert’s defense team had written to Israel’s attorney general the day before and called for a criminal investigation into what they alleged was witness tampering and obstruction of justice by the prosecution. The accusation is based on a document that the prosecution had described as a transcript of pretrial preparatory interviews with a witness, Hadar Saltzman of Rishontours. Olmert is accused of using the travel agency as a conduit for double-billing overseas travel expenses when addressing Jewish groups. The trial judge had dismissed the defense’s complaint, but the chief judge, Musia Arad, stepped in this afternoon and slammed the prosecution for paraphrasing and in some cases apparently omitting what was supposed to be Saltzman’s actual testimony. The defense says what she told prosecutors during her extensive pretrial preparation did not match what she initially told police investigators. The prosecutors basically say the dog ate their homework.
So what? Here’s so what: This could turn out to be the latest in a string of cases that have been brought against Olmert in the past decade and fallen apart under scrutiny. The accumulation of allegations forced him to resign as prime minister in August 2008, in the midst of what were described as serious negotiations with the Palestinian leadership to reach a final peace agreement. The negotiations continued while then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni tried to form an alternative coalition to replace Olmert but keep his Kadima in power. But according to Livni, when she gave up her coalition talks in late October 2008 and called for new elections, she and the Palestinians agreed to suspend the talks until a new government was formed. What they got was Bibi. Unless Livni is lying, it’s quite plausible that if Olmert hadn’t been forced from office, the talks could have been brought to completion.
Here’s a 2008 British news report on the suspension of the peace talks following the failure of Livni’s coalition talks. Here’s a Wall Street Journal interview with Livni from this past January describing the progress she and the Palestinians were making before they suspended the talks. Here’s another one in Foreign Policy this past March. She said the same thing more explicitly in an op-ed piece that appeared in the Yediot Ahronot Friday supplement a couple of months ago (it wasn’t on line, and I can’t find my copy) — namely that the talks did not fall apart, but were merely suspended until Israel got a stable government that could negotiate authoritatively.
Livni says the talks had reached some essential understandings that both sides agreed could form the basis for a deal that worked for both sides. She says that the Netanyahu government should restart the talks at the point where it left off.
What she doesn’t spell out, though it’s no secret, is that when Bibi Netanyahu became prime minister in February 2009 he repudiated the understandings that the two sides had already reached. Even after publicly endorsing the two state solution in June 2009 (summary here, full text here), he laid down conditions that Israel had long since agreed to drop (in return for extensive Palestinian concessions on the right of return and Israeli security arrangements). Bibi’s repeated calls of late for the Palestinians to return to the table are all openly premised on the expectation that the talks will start from zero, so that he can roll back concessions Israel’s previous governments had agreed to regarding borders, settlements and especially Jerusalem.
Conventional wisdom has it (here, here and here, for example) that successive Israeli governments made generous offers to the Palestinians—Ehud Barak in 2000 at Camp David, Olmert in 2008—but the Palestinians walked away each time and refused to accept Israel’s offers.
There’s more than a bit of self-serving myth in that narrative. Yes, Yasser Arafat dramatically walked out of the Camp David summit in July 2000 and rejected Barak’s offer. But the talks restarted in Taba a few months later and were making good progress until Barak lost his coalition, his government collapsed and Ariel Sharon replaced him. (Barak’s government collapsed in large part because of the bloody intifada that had broken out in between. Arafat thought he could kill and talk at the same time, the way the FLN, the Mau Maus and the Viet Cong did, but he underestimated Israelis’ distaste for being murdered.)
Likewise with Olmert — the talks ended not because the Palestinians walked away, but because their negotiating partner lost his job and was replaced by a hard-liner.
If it now turns out that Olmert’s corruption was a mass of unsubstantiated, unprovable allegations—as Ariel Sharon’s turned out to be, let’s remember — then the tragedy is compounded. Why is it that one prime minister after another falls — assassinated, abandoned by his coalition, hounded from office by lawyers and muckrakers — just when Israel is within reach of peace? Coincidence? Hand of God? Or perhaps an extraordinary run of — um, good luck on the part of the messianists?
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).