Perspective 55. Prosecuting Public Officials: A Rarity in Israel (as Elsewhere)?
The corruption trial of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drags on for a year and a half, with no end in sight. The usual cynicism sets in: with powerful figures, the day of judgment never comes. It's the same in Israel, right?
No. Israel has an impressive record of convicting, and jailing, the high and mighty. One sitting President was forced to resign and was imprisoned for several years. Likewise a Prime Minister was forced from office and eventually served time.
The President, Moshe Katsav, was charged with rape and other sexual offenses by women who had worked with him. After resigning under pressure, he was indicted and convicted, eventually serving five years of a seven-year sentence. His early release came after he finally admitted that he had acted "inappropriately."
Ehud Olmert was indicted for crimes committed during service as mayor of Jerusalem, and government minister, before becoming Prime Minister. Forced to resign, he was eventually convicted for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, and served 18 months in prison.
Over the course of time another eleven government ministers have been convicted for crimes committed in or out of office. The majority of these transgressions -- seven of them -- involved financial shenanigans of one kind or another -- generally bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
Two were found guilty, like Katsav, of sexual offenses, one of perjury, and one for assault. (This last miscreant was Avigdor Lieberman, who paid a stiff fine but continued in politics as a party leader and is currently Minister of Finance.)
Another seventeen members of the Knesset have at various times been convicted of crimes, the majority of them serving time in jail.
Remarkably, two Chief Rabbis have also run afoul of the civil judiciary. Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, Sephardi Chief Rabbi 1993-2003, was convicted of fraud for issuing false rabbinic ordinations. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger (2003-2013) received a 3 1/2 year prison sentence for bribery, fraud, and money laundering.
In this context, the prosecution of a now former Prime Minister for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust is not so startling. Netanyahu's offenses and prospects do not differ from those for which others have served time.
Bibi and his wife Sara received an estimated $280,000 worth of gifts -- much of it champagne and cigars! -- from two wealthy U.S. and Australian tycoons. Just an expression of friendship, the Netanyahus claim. The Attorney-General felt differently, issuing an indictment on the basis of political favors received in return.
Two other cases involve Netanyahu's efforts to gain favorable coverage from a leading newspaper, and from a news service, in return fro reciprocal services and regulatory manipulations. More bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, according to the Attorney-General (appointed, by the way, under a Netanyahu government).
One should not expect a quick resolution. As Martin Luther King said, "the arc of justice is long." This is especially true in Israel. It took seven years to move from the indictment of Ehud Olmert to the day he entered prison.
"But," King concluded, “it bends toward justice." Eventually it caught up with Olmert, and others above, after years of denial and delay.
Bibi has good reason to worry.