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Corruption Is Institutionalized, Say Activists, as Israeli ex-Prime Minister Is Jailed

The jailing of Ehud Olmert is a step in the right direction, say Israeli anti-corruption campaigners, but to really clean things up the whole political system needs to be changed.
May 25, 2015, 1:00pm
Photo by Heidi Levine/EPA

The former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert has been sentenced to eight months in prison for illegally accepting more than $150,000 from a US tycoon whilst holding a ministerial office.

Olmert, who served for three years at Israel's helm, was previously acquitted of the charges in 2012 after businessman Morris "Moshe" Talansky testified that the cash-stuffed envelopes he gave Olmert were for cigars and luxury trips abroad, and were not related to political deals. However, that decision was reversed when the politician's former assistant presented damning new evidence showing he offered her money in exchange for not testifying against him.

Speaking at Monday's hearing the prosecutor accused Olmert — who presented a letter of character witness from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the hearing — of having "expressed no remorse" for his crimes, while judges criticized him for lying during the first trial.

Olmert is now set to serve nearly seven years in jail having already been sentenced to six years for accepting bribes in a multi-million dollar real estate whilst serving as mayor of Jerusalem. He is appealing the six year sentence and plans to appeal the new conviction and sentence, said his lawyers.

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The double conviction of the former head of state is just one in a series of recent court cases and ongoing police investigations that activists say highlight the extent political corruption in Israel.

Over the last two decades more than a dozen MPs, including three former ministers have received jail time for crimes including fraud, embezzlement and forgery whilst in office.

Among them are former finance minister Avraham Hirschson who stole close to two million shekels from the National Workers Labor Federation while acting as chairman of the organization, and the current minister of economy, Aryeh Deri, who spent nearly two years in jail for taking bribes while he was interior minister.

A total of four Israeli prime ministers have been subject to police investigations for alleged corruption, but only Olmert has ultimately been charged and convicted.

Back in 2000 a probe into the incumbent head of state Benjamin Netanyahu for accepting free services from a private contractor was dropped despite a police recommendation to press charges. The Attorney General overseeing the case said there was insufficient evidence to go to court but expressed "discomfort" at the decision not to proceed due to a "tangible suspicion" of wrongdoing.

Netanyahu and his wife Sara recently came under further scrutiny for misappropriation of public money after a government auditor's report revealed the couple spent $18,000 a year on takeaway meals despite having a cook and more than $25,000 on cleaning their private home in a upmarket beach resort.

"The system is far too lenient on these political figures," Eli Sulam, Director of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel told VICE News. "If a former finance minister and prime minister can be sent to jail then we can assume there's a lot more going on behind the scenes."

Corruption allegations also surrounded Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister from 2001 to 2006, throughout his career. One of the most high-profile cases was the so-called "Greek Island" affair in which Sharon and his son Gilad were accused of taking backhand payments from businessman and political powerbroker David Appel, in return for favorable treatment of his plans to build a exotic casino off the Aegean coast. Appel was indicted for bribery in 2004, but the charges were later dropped.

"Israel's a young state, it started out very small, with a closed culture that led to family protectionism and nepotism as a norm in politics and business," Ifat Zamir Executive Director of Transparency International in Israel, told VICE News. "There have been a lot advances in transparency and accountability, but it's a process and there's still a long way to go."

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Recent research by the NGO found only one percent of Israelis believed corruption was not a problem and 79 percent saw political parties as either "corrupt" or "extremely corrupt."

However, activists say the stats also reflect increased public awareness following large-scale "social justice" rallies in 2011. "After the protests people began demanding a lot more information," said Sulam. "People are more critical of they government, they're saying: 'You're not our king, this is our money not yours and we want to know how it's being spent.'"

But knowledge about politicians' corrupt activities doesn't always translate into action at the polling booths in a country where security issues top many voters list of concerns.

"Politicians play on fears during elections, they talk about the Islamic State and Hamas and distract from the other important issues," said Sulam. "Unfortunately as a result of this is we now have a convicted felon [Deri] serving as a minister again."

Another major problem facing anti-corruption campaigners in Israel is the deeply institutionalized nature of the problem.

Activist-turned-politician Stav Shaffir, who aged just 29 is Israel's youngest member of parliament, says she only realized the true extent of the task ahead after she was elected. Appointed to the Finance Committee after being elected in 2013, she says she discovered a shocking "double budget" policy of secretly funneling billions of dollars of public money into right-wing NGOs and movements, including pro-settlement groups.

"Corruption in Israel is often happening in legal grey zone. A lot of deals take place in the corridor, there's no paper trail. The attitude is 'that's how things are done here,' there's no understanding inside the system that this way of doing things is even problematic," she told VICE News.

Shaffir, recently re-elected, says she will continue her fight against corruption in the new government but there's a long way to go. "Olmert's conviction is a step in the right direction but it's going to take a lot more than putting one person in jail," she added. "Ultimately we need to change the whole system."

_Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: _@HarrietSalem