Ehud Olmert, prime minister of Israel from January 2006 until about a year ago, is going to begin what promises to be a long relationship with the courtroom. The “Rishon Tours” trial, the one where he is accused of paying for private flights for his family by funneling funds received from public organizations for his official trips, is about to begin. Olmert is being implicated in a long list of corruption cases, from his time serving as the minister of Industry & Trade, as mayor of Jerusalem and as prime minister. It looks like he will spending a lot of money on lawyers in the next few years.
I saw Olmert in person twice in my life. The first time was 25 years ago, when I was a cadet in officers’ school. He was a Likud parliamentarian then, and he turned up for a right-left political debate with Yossi Sarid from Meretz. I remember Sarid saying that even though Olmert was a fierce political rival, he was one of the only right-wing MKs that he was prepared to debate with publicly, because of his integrity and honesty. I was impressed with Olmert during the debate; he was passionately eloquent about his beliefs.
The second time I saw Olmert was 7 or 8 years ago, in Japan. As minister of Industry & Trade he headed a delegation of Israeli businessmen and gave a short speech at the Israeli embassy in Tokyo. I remember him talking in an offhand manner about the importance of doing business in Japan and giving “street wisdom” advice like “you should take these Japanese seriously and don’t be late to your meetings”. I wasn’t impressed.
I was reminded of my brief encounters with Olmert as I was reading through Avraham Burg’s piece in YNET this morning. Burg wrote in support of Olmert during these difficult times and stressed the obvious, yet elusive, democratic principle: a person is innocent until proven otherwise. As Burg writes, it is hard to recall another public figure in Israel that’s been so utterly vilified and denounced as Olmert, and this is before he spent even one day in court, let alone found guilty of anything.
Who knows whether Olmert is innocent or not. My gut feeling is that there is no smoke without fire. But I too am influenced by the media’s hysterical reporting and by information and insinuations in books like the one by Dan Margalit. I don’t know the real facts and neither do any of these esteemed journalists. Contrary to popular belief, I happen to think that Olmert was a fine prime minister, who had to deal with major issues during his tenure: the Hezbollah threat from Lebanon, the regional race for nuclear weapons (Syria and Iran), the pullout from Gaza, the global economic recession, and much more. He dealt with these issues as reasonably as one can expect. He certainly did a better job than the one his successor is doing.
So I too am giving Olmert the benefit of the doubt. For now.