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Olmert’s predicament, Israel’s problem

In the four years since Ehud Olmert announced his resignation from the post of prime minister amid a cloud of corruption allegations, many Israelis and observers the world over took it as an article of faith that the prime minister was guilty — of something.

He may still be.

But this week’s announcement that Olmert was exonerated of the specific charges that forced him to resign shows the dangers of foregoing due process in Israel, where campaigns of leaks, media reports and innuendo often result in the conviction of public figures in the court of public opinion long before their convictions in court — or in the absence of court convictions entirely. For four years running, this has been a problem for Olmert. But with any public figure in Israel at risk of finding himself the target of similar campaigns, it’s really a problem for Israel.

Here’s what I wrote about this in August 2009, about six months after Olmert stepped down as prime minister.

In Israel, where public officials from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are the subjects of multiple corruption probes, years often pass from the moment the public first learns of an investigation to the moment the suspects are charged with a crime — if they’re ever indicted at all.

In the interim, reputations are sullied, the media cry for blood and careers are ruined. In Olmert’s case, news of the investigations forced the resignation of a prime minister. More than a year since Olmert announced he was stepping down, he still has not been indicted with a crime.

Two of the five investigations against him have since been dropped — one alleging that Olmert changed the terms of a contract to purchase shares of Bank Leumi in order to help a friend, the other that Olmert purchased on apartment on Jerusalem’s Cremieux Street at a discount in exchange for favors.

None of this is to say that the former prime minister is innocent, though he claims to be. Olmert still faces three investigations — that he double-billed for overseas trips, made improper appointments when he was minister of trade and labor, and accepted cash from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky — and Israel’s attorney general said this week that decisions on indicting Olmert in those affairs are forthcoming.

But without an indictment in hand or a trial in court, Olmert has not had the opportunity to fully address the charges against him and defend himself….

While courts presume innocence until guilt is proven, the public rarely does. That puts public figures at a particular disadvantage when it comes to long-running corruption investigations conducted in the public eye under the shadow of innuendo and rumors.

In Israel, there’s plenty of blame to go around for this too-common problem. Police and lawyers leak details of investigations to reporters. The media stoke the public’s outrage in the absence of a full public accounting. Prosecutors fail to conclude investigations quickly.

The upshot is that the right to due process is at risk in Israel.

Some argue that Olmert and Lieberman deserve the suspicion they’ve drawn. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, these critics say.

But almost anyone can fall under suspicion — particularly those with political enemies. Yesterday it was a left-winger. Today it’s a right-winger. Tomorrow — who knows?

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