2/15/2016 Olmert Begins Jail Term - Netanyahu appears before high court

Israel’s former Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert entered the Ma’asiyahu prison facility at 10:00 AM this morning to begin serving his 19 month sentence for corruption charges. Olmert’s incarceration marks the first time a former Prime Minister has been found guilty and sentenced to jail for a crime. Olmert joins former President Moshe Katzav who is serving a sentence for rape.

Israelis reacted with a combination of both pride and shame to the television images of Olmert arriving at the prison – i.e. Pride in the fact the Israeli legal system was capable of trying such a high level official and shame that so many politicians have been found guilty of committing crimes. Olmert, who was forced to resign as Prime Minister when the corruption charges against him first surfaced, continues to maintain his innocence, though he agreed to plead guilty to the charge of obstruction of justice. The former Prime Minister released a video this morning once again proclaiming his innocence, while accepting the verdict. Admitting he made mistakes, Olmert denies they reached the level of criminal culpability. Olmert stated: “At this time I want to say that I deny outright the charges relating to bribery attributed to me. It is also important for me to note that all the charges do not touch on the time of my tenure as prime minister. It is with a very heavy heart that I accept the sentence — no one is above the law.”

Olmert’s incarceration was not the only legal matter that engaged Israelis in the last 48 hours. First, during the last 24 hours, despite a recent report by the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security apparatus) that incidents of terror had returned to the levels existing prior to the recent spate of attacks, six separate attacks were executed over the course of the day. These attacks, all of which were unsuccessful, resulted in the deaths of many of the attackers.

Later yesterday, Prime Minster Netanyahu appeared before the Supreme Court of Israel to defend the recently approved agreement with a group of Oil & Gas companies to develop Israel’s known gas fields in the Mediterranean. A number of groups have brought legal suits claiming the agreement on the table granted a monopoly to the gas companies, and further argued that one of the key provisions of the arrangement, (i.e. that the government would make no changes in the agreement for the next 15 years) violates fundamental procedures of Israeli law. Netanyahu’s vigorous plea that the agreement was in the best interests of Israel, notwithstanding, at the end of the day the justices seemed to question the legality of the section of the agreement that precluded modifications by future governments. The Justices countered, asking the government if it was willing to go to the Israeli parliament to pass a law that would codify the agreement; something the government is reluctant to do, since it fears it would not have a majority to pass such a law.

Finally, at the same time the strength of the Israeli legal system was on display, its apparent weakness was also clearly visible. The story of Mohammed al-Qeeq, a Palestinian journalist who has been held in Administrative Detention for the past three months has been carrying on a hunger strike. al-Qeeq, whose refusal of food has put his life in danger was ordered by the Israeli high court to be released from custody, but also compelled not to leave the Afula hospital that has been treating him (though al-Qeeq has asked to be transferred to a Palestinian hospital in Ramallah.) al-Qeeq is just one of over 600 people being held in Administrative Detention, without having charges brought against them; some have been confined for over a year. Most of those held are Palestinians or Arab Israelis, a few are Jewish. These people are being detained based on the English Emergency Laws that Israel inherited and has not substantially changed. These out-of-date legacy laws underly one of the fundamental contradictions of Israel’s legal system. Israel is clearly a place where the rule of law is indeed quite strong – that is, unless you are considered a security risk. Of course, the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay might empathize with that problem.