Israel is still corrupt, but Olmert’s crimes were of a different era

The old boss: Ehud Olmert in court. EPA/Dan Balilty

In the wake of his conviction for corruption, some have called former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert the Israeli version of House of Cards’s Frank Underwood. The comparison is somewhat miselading; while Underwood is a ruthlessly ambitious politician willing to do anything to gain power, the former is a greedy and charming person who benefited from 500,000 shekels (US$160,000) in bribes to his brother Yossi, and US$15,000 to finance his political campaigns.

And yet, publicists who compared Olmert to Underwood and the Holyland affair to House of Cards were not entirely wrong: in both cases the hero is deeply corrupt, and in both cases many people sympathise with them in spite or because of their corruption.

Olmert is not Underwood, and he was not a particularly good prime minister either. Many journalists, academics, businessmen and other members of the Olmert-era Israeli elite do still believe that he was one of the best prime ministers in the history of Israeli politics; they are wrong, and their nostalgia for Olmert is largely coloured by their hatred of Netanyahu.

Israel did not lose a great leader when Olmert resigned in disgrace; the corruption that helped him to power (his powerful tycoon allies knew that they could count on him) made him a brave decision maker, but one who took the wrong decisions more often than not.

Among other things, Olmert’s corruption promoted the concentration on the economy and hindered competition. The fact that the former elite, including the business community, does not consider crony capitalism a problem, and continues to look at Olmert as an alternative to Netanyahu, tells us a lot about the power structure in this country – how disconnected the elite is from the the majority of the population, how strong Benjamin Netanyahu is, and how weak his opponents are. There is little to be sorry for besides the fact that such a corrupt politician as Olmert enjoyed the support of the powerful.

Out with the old

The Holyland affair, which revolved around the construction of a major high-rise complex in Jerusalem, fully exposes the corruption of Israeli local government – something that has long been part and parcel of Israeli politics. But in many respects, the affair does not reflect the state of contemporary Israel. It is an unusually large-scale scandal: with ten people convicted of more than a decade’s worth of bribes and maladministration and illegal benefits, all amounting to billions of dollars, it is the biggest publicly known corruption affair in Israel’s history.

A man turns his back on the Holyland development. EPA/Jim Hollander

It is also rare that poor public ethics leave such a conspicuous mark as the hideous and widely loathed buildings that now blight the Jerusalem skyline. Corruption, after all, usually thrives on its invisibility.

What has really changed, though, is the personality of Israeli politics. Corruption like that witnessed in the Holyland affair requires trust, good personal relations, cool, loyalty – traits and tendencies that Olmert has in spades, but which Netanyahu and many other “new politicians” lack. Put another way, a conspiracy this huge, taking place over more than a decade and with so many participants, is something that only old-style politicians like Olmert could organise.

Netanyahu would not have servants as loyal as Olmert’s former bureau chief Shula Zaken, and he would never dare to do what Olmert did. Even if he wanted to, no one would be fool enough to trust him. His individualistic and disloyal character, the antithesis of Olmert’s gladhanding manner, keeps him out of business as personal as clientalist politics.

But there is another reason that the Holyland affair does not represent contemporary Israel. Israel’s current elite is much weaker than that in place in 2010, when the affair started. In the intervening four years, all the gatekeepers who led the investigation and took major decisions about the prosecution retired; they were exchanged for others less committed to the fight against corruption.

Explaining why and how these things happened, and what they mean for the future of Israeli corruption, is beyond the scope of this article. What is clear is that post-Olmert and post-Holyland Israel will never be the same again.

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