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Ehud Olmert, Anti-Corruption Crusader

Before he was convicted of massive wrongdoing, the former prime minister was a fierce moralizer. What happened?

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Ehud Olmert is congratulated after being elected mayor of Jerusalem on Nov. 2, 1993. Olmert beat Labor candidate Teddy Kollek, 83, who had been mayor for the previous 28 years. (Yoav Lemmer/AFP/Getty Images)
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On the June 28, 1966, the Herut party—the predecessor to today’s Likud—convened to discuss its political future. For six straight electoral campaigns, the party had failed to oust its chief rival, the omnipotent Labor party, and some young activists were demanding change and calling for the resignation of Herut’s leader, Menachem Begin.

“If Begin failed to lead us to victory,” thundered a 21-year-old junior delegate, making his first political appearance, “then he should face the consequences.” All hell broke loose. “Snot-nosed kid!” yelled an older party apparatchik, and other veterans stood up and screamed for the irreverent speaker to step down. Begin himself, however, was delighted with the young man’s courage and demanded that he be permitted to finish his speech, or else. “If the convention will not permit the delegate Olmert to speak,” he said, “I will leave.” The delegate Olmert spoke, and when he was done he stepped down knowing that his place in Israeli politics was secure.

Seven years later, Ehud Olmert was elected a member of Knesset. At 28, he was one of the youngest parliamentarians in Israel’s history, and he wasted little time broadcasting his youthful enthusiasm. His beachhead into national prominence was a crusade—odd to contemplate in light of his sentencing this morning—against corruption and organized crime. Olmert’s theme was simple and evocative, an early indication of his ear for political storytelling: Too many powerful politicians, generals, and other patricians, he warned, were making a mint by teaming up with shady businessmen and abusing their authority for fun and profit.

Rather than take his claims to court or to the police, Olmert aired them out in the media, a practice practically unthinkable at the time in a small nation with a single, government-run TV channel, a handful of newspapers, and little experience with spin.

“There are very serious individuals out there whose aim it is to reach positions of power in the underworld,” Olmert told a press conference in the winter of 1976. “Among the members of this new group are people with a respectable military background, some who had served in our top units, including officers who aren’t junior.”

For those in the know, Olmert’s convoluted language wasn’t much of a barrier: The young legislator, it was clear, was talking about Rehavam Ze’evi, a celebrated general serving at the time as a special adviser to the prime minister on terrorism and espionage. Israel being small, and its political class being incestuous, it was well-known that Ze’evi was friendly with Betzalel Mizrachi, a hotelier rumored to have criminal connections and a hand in money laundering. The general, Olmert was implying, was really not much more than a mob kingpin, using his prominence and his influence to make himself and his entourage wealthy.

Ze’evi and Mizrachi, fuming, summoned Olmert to a meeting at the Shalom Hotel in Jerusalem. They were not aware that the shrewd Young Turk was recording their conversation.

Wasting no time, Ze’evi demanded an apology. Olmert refused. “If the army isn’t incited or has it in for you yet,” the general said menacingly, “I’ll make sure it will be, and that it demands an apology. … I promise you that I’ll launch this war with all my might, all my imagination, and all my cunning.” Olmert asked if Ze’evi was talking about pressing charges, and Ze’evi huffed. “I promise you that this is not the course of action that’s being considered. There are more effective ways out there.”

Olmert was unfazed. A year later, he testified about the meeting to a special committee of inquiry he’d played a major role in convening. He had other stories, too: A senior police officer in Tel Aviv, he claimed, took pleasure in frequenting two Jaffa prostitutes known as Perla and Bella the Bulgarian. It was juicy stuff, and Olmert’s media profile grew more prominent by the week. And, naturally, the rookie politician reveled in the attention, making a show of checking under his car for an explosive device each morning. And Ze’evi and Mizrachi sued for libel, giving Olmert more press.

By 1978, the committee delivered its verdict, supporting Olmert’s argument that widespread corruption was systemic among many of Israel’s power elites. “Sometimes the desire to eat in fancy restaurants and take pleasure in flattery bind senior officials together with criminals,” read its conclusion. Olmert, of course, gave it his blessing.

What, then, are we to learn from the story of the young politician who had gone from fighting corruption to becoming its most prominent representative? Three readings suggest themselves here. You may believe that Olmert was once a good man who, like so many Hollywood anti-heroes, found the system’s rottenness so pervasive as to eventually not only join it but master it as well. Or you may think of him as the real-life, Jewish equivalent of Batman villain Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face, a district attorney who is intermittently a fierce civil servant and a criminal mastermind, using his sterling public persona to hide his perfidy. Or you may simply conclude that Olmert is that most classic of all political prototypes, the ambitious and well-meaning young man who grew dark with power the higher he climbed. All options are equally dispiriting, and all suggest that the final chapter in the complicated story of Ehud Olmert is far from sealed.

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Ehud Olmert, Anti-Corruption Crusader

Before he was convicted of massive wrongdoing, the former prime minister was a fierce moralizer. What happened?

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