Volume 3, Number 178
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

Tuesday-Wednesday, September 1-2, 2009


Olmert indictment, Katsav trial: Oy Gevalt!

By Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM—Good signs or bad signs for the quality of Israeli democracy and justice?

1. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been indicted for what has been described as serial theft extending over several years while he served as Jerusalem Mayor and minister in the national government. The charges are fraud, breach of trust, falsifying corporate records, and failing to report income. The indictment covers more than 60 pages, and describes multiple billing for overseas travel, envelopes filled with cash, a collection of expensive fountain pens received as gifts, and intervention in government contracts for the benefit of friends and business associates. Not included in the indictment, but part of the Olmert saga, are personal residences purchased for less than the market value, and sold for more than the market value, perhaps disguised gifts or favors. The Attorney General considered including bribery as part of the indictment, but did not find sufficient evidence to justify the charge.

2. Tomorrow begins the trial of former President Moshe Katsav on charges of rape and sexual harassment.

3. The Ministry of Education announced that it has failed in efforts to reach an agreement with religious primary schools in Petah Tikva to accept Ethiopian students. The principal of one of the schools says that no one will dictate that he must accept students who do not meet his standards. The Ministry says that it will cut off funding that provides 60 to 75 percent of the schools' income, and is considering canceling their authority to operate.

4. Ultra-Orthodox protests are escalating in Jerusalem, with mass demonstrations, efforts to block streets, throwing of stones and garbage, and tussles with police. Some are protesting the opening of a parking garage on the Sabbath, some the charges against an ultra-Orthodox woman for abusing her children, and some the prospect of a post-mortem

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examination of a murder victim. Some are protesting all the issues, although there are ultra-Orthodox activists who are staying out of the protest about the charge of child abuse.

Israeli justice works deliberately. Other cases against senior officials have dragged on for almost a decade. Ultimately it does get to the highest officials. It has sent government ministers to jail. A former minister of finance and a former minister of health, labor and social welfare enter jail tomorrow, each for terms of several years. Now we will see if the same punishment will be imposed on individuals who held the highest and most prestigious offices of prime minister and president.

It will take years before the case against Olmert reaches its conclusion. The investigation of Katsav began in July 2006. A year or more from now we may still be speculating about a final verdict.

Should we be disturbed, pleased, or even proud that the prime minister remained in office and managed two important military campaigns while under investigation for serious crimes? Until there was enough evidence to indict, he had the rights of a free citizen. But to govern the country? Should an already overloaded country allocate even more resources to its police and attorney general so they can decide with greater dispatch?

Commentators are calling the confrontation in Petah Tikva Israel's Brown vs. Board of Education. The principal's claim that the students cannot function in his school is not credible in the face of his rejection of all Ethiopian students, and the well established Israeli practice of allocating extra resources and tutors for immigrant children and those from disadvantaged families.

The ultra-Orthodox protests are only the latest example of communities on the fringes of society, insistent on their righteousness and apartness, while demanding substantial public resources. Their population growth and continued absence from the labor force and the military add to the concern about current and future costs.

One can look back and forth in the Israeli media without finding anything about settlements, or the aspirations of Barack Obama for the Middle East. We have enough to worry about without him.

Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University. Email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

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