Sadness as former Israeli prime minister begins prison term

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert began a 19-month jail term Monday, the first Israeli of that office to ever serve time in prison. What has brought him here, and what does Israel think?

Yoav Lemmer/Reuters/File
Then Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert attends a weekly cabinet meeting in his office in Jerusalem April 29, 2007.

Ehud Olmert made history Monday, as the first former Israeli prime minister ever to do time.

The 19-month sentence is the culmination of a legal saga stretching back several years, which first forced the Israeli premier from office in 2009, in the midst of the last serious effort at peacemaking between the Israelis and Palestinians.

It is in this light that many Israelis feel a sense of sadness at the outcome, while others hold their heads high, asserting that this case is a demonstration of the impartiality of their legal system.

Some share darker thoughts, lamenting what they see as the rotten core of Israeli politics, of which this case is but a taste. And as for Mr. Olmert, he denies all bribery charges.

“At this hour it is important for me to say again... I reject outright all the corruption allegations against me,” says the ex-prime minister in a video released hours before he started his sentence.

“As prime minister I was charged with the highest responsibility of safeguarding the security of Israel’s citizens. Today I am the one to be locked behind bars.

“You can surely imagine how painful and strange this change is for me, my family and loved ones.”

He goes on to talk of his hopes that, with hindsight, Israelis will take a compassionate view of events, remembering the efforts he made to secure a better, brighter future.

And, indeed, he was at the heart of many of Israel’s efforts to negotiate a path to peace, as The Economist notes:

"Ehud Olmert loomed large in every recent attempt to bring about a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict. As prime minister from 2006-2009, he promised to complete the job begun by his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, and pull Israel’s army out of the West Bank after four decades of occupation. In 2008, he offered a land-for-peace deal to the Palestinians."

But, as he himself admits in his video, "nobody stands above the law". 

Olmert was convicted in March 2014 of taking a bribe to ease the passage of a real estate project, when he was mayor of Jerusalem, in “one of the largest corruption scandals ever exposed in Israel,” which involved millions of dollars illegally changing hands.

At the time of his sentencing, in May 2014, Judge David Rozen said, “A public servant who accepts bribes is akin to a traitor.”

"This is a man who was on top of the world. He served as prime minister, the most important position, and from there he reached the position of a man convicted of criminal offenses."

Reaction to the reality that, today, for the first time, an Israeli prime minister begins serving a prison sentence, has, understandably, elicited a range of emotional responses.

"More than a few people were convinced that Olmert would be spared a stint in prison at the very last moment," says Aviad Hacohen of the Academic Center in Tel Aviv, writing in Israel Hayom. "In their heart of hearts, they hoped that his former friend, President Reuven Rivlin, would pardon him, or that by the grace of some miracle, Olmert would escape the prison experience. But their hopes were proved false."

“The sadness felt over how a former prime minister has fallen so far from grace, however, is not without its silver lining," Dr. Hacohen continues, "at least from the law enforcement and public points of view, as the rule of law has prevailed.”

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