As if handing down Israel’s most hotly awaited criminal sentence on the very eve of Yom Kippur weren’t symbolism enough for one day, the presiding judge in the corruption trial of former prime minister Ehud Olmert managed to drop a hint in her ruling that world history might be unfolding right there in her courtroom. And she just might be right.
The ruling was dramatic even without the hints. Explaining why she was letting Olmert off with a suspended sentence and a fine, rather than jail time or community service, Jerusalem District Judge Mussia Arad noted repeatedly that Olmert had already suffered very substantial punishment. He was “forced from the highest office in the land” after “decades of public service,” subjected to years of nonstop “trial in the media” via police leaks that tarred him as corrupt before he ever entered a courtroom, and finally compelled to resign following sensational pretrial testimony, months before he was even indicted. And all this on the basis of serious charges, bribery and misuse of funds, of which he was ultimately acquitted. The charge on which he was finally convicted, breach of trust, was incidental to the main drama.
Then there was that other hint: It wasn’t simply that Olmert had suffered enough. Israel, she seemed to say, had suffered enough. Specifically, she took pains to note — twice in her 27-page ruling — that one of Olmert’s unearned punishments was “the painful aborting of historic, fateful measures he had planned to achieve for the good of the state.” This was a reference to his peace negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, cut short when he left office. Now, that’s hardly Olmert’s personal loss. If anything, it’s Israel’s loss. Or gain, depending on your viewpoint.
The court, she noted, could have given him the maximum, possibly six months behind bars or a year of community service. That might have a deterrent effect the next time a government minister thinks of tilting a contract toward a friend’s client, as Olmert was convicted of having done years earlier. It also would bar Olmert from politics for seven years. Suspending the sentence means he’s free to run again. The judges’ dilemma: What best serves justice? What serves the Israeli public?
To answer that, it helps to recall that Israelis will be voting sometime in 2013 to choose a prime minister. Recent polls show Olmert is the only figure on the current landscape with a serious chance of unseating incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu. If Olmert were reelected, he would seek immediately to restart peace talks, probably from the point where they left off. If the Palestinians accept, it could lead, as Arad hinted, to a “historic, fateful” peace agreement.
That’s a lot of “ifs.” Conventional wisdom these days says Israelis won’t elect a government of the center-left anytime soon, whether because of demographic changes in the electorate or because voters feel burned by the ill-fated Gaza withdrawal. Conventional wisdom further says the Palestinians aren’t ready for peace, either because they haven’t accepted Israel’s existence or because Abbas’s Fatah party is running scared of Hamas.
In fact, none of those truisms is necessarily true. A poll commissioned by the right-wing Jerusalem Post in mid-July, right after Olmert’s mixed verdict, showed that if he joined forces with TV host-turned-politician Yair Lapid, they would win 30 seats to Netanyahu’s 27 in the 120-member Knesset. And that was before Netanyahu soured relations with Washington and pushed Israel toward a war with Iran that the public overwhelmingly opposes.
Could Olmert form a coalition? The current electoral landscape is dominated by right-wing parties. That’s why Netanyahu was able to form a government in 2009 despite coming in second. That won’t necessarily be the case next time, though. The difference is Aryeh Deri, the charismatic founder of the Shas party. A liberal on foreign and economic affairs, he was convicted in 2000 on bribery charges he still disputes and for which he served 22 months in prison. His successor, the colorless, staunchly conservative Eli Yishai, turned Shas into a reliable force on the right. But Deri announced in 2011 that he’s returning to politics, either by recapturing Shas or forming his own party. Either way, polls show, Deri could win enough Knesset seats to put a center-left government in power, if a leader emerged. If Olmert returns, there’s a leader.
Olmert still has hurdles to clear. First, the prosecutors might appeal to the high court, though the justices are unlikely to overturn a unanimous lower court. Second, he’s still on trial, with 15 other defendants, in a separate real estate scandal known as the Holyland Affair. Right now it looks more like a circus than a real legal threat. Anything is possible. Still, Israel is known for miracles. Even resurrection from political death.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).