In a conversation with several of his acquaintances on the eve of the Passover holiday, former Minister Rafi Eitan revealed that he planned to approach President Reuven Rivlin with a request to pardon former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert so that his criminal record be expunged. Olmert was released from prison last year after serving 16 months for “disgraceful" — ethical — offenses. A person convicted of such crimes is ineligible for several public offices, including the premiership. Should Rivlin agree, Olmert could then return to political life and perhaps even find himself re-elected prime minister just nine months after being released from prison for bribery, fraud, breach of trust and interfering with a legal investigation.
When I first learned of this last week, it seemed unreal. How could Olmert, a man with the questionable distinction of being the first Israeli prime minister to serve time in prison, think that such a comeback is possible? Or could he be unaware of what Eitan was up to? When I posted the news on Twitter April 2, the inevitable responses were quick in coming. Most people were shocked at Olmert's chutzpah. Some questioned the reliability of the news.
Journalists who contacted Eitan that day and the next learned that he did indeed plan to approach Rivlin about the matter. Eitan may be 91 years old, but he is still sharp and focused. There is something crafty about him. In an interview with Radio 103, he said, “I think the man has already been punished for his actions. He served his time in prison. Furthermore, there can be no doubt that his presence is sorely lacking in the public and political life of the State of Israel. He could contribute far more than many of the other people currently in power. … It is important to strengthen the political realm with people of Olmert’s character, regardless of where they are situated on the political spectrum.”
Eitan later admitted that he wanted to remove the stigma of moral turpitude so that Olmert could return to public life. He would not deny that the former prime minister was involved in his efforts.
Some of the people who spoke with Olmert after news of Eitan’s initiative was published heard denial. But anyone experienced with the nuanced language of politicians noticed that his denial was too faint to be credible. And in fact, on April 9, immediately after Passover, the full story was revealed. Olmert had, in fact, approached the Justice Ministry and the president with a request to have his criminal record expunged.
His request for a pardon was long and detailed, suggesting it had been prepared well in advance. Its main arguments centered on Olmert’s contributions to state security, with his dramatic decision to destroy the Syrian nuclear reactor foremost among them.
It is now quite clear that Olmert is following a well-planned strategy in an effort to return to public life. His first step was to receive permission from the Military Censor to publish his book “In Person.” In it, he provides a detailed narrative of his decisive role in destroying the reactor in Deir ez-Zor nine years ago, along with an account of how Defense Minister Ehud Barak tried to prevent the attack. It's clearly supposed to be the platform on which Olmert will rehabilitate his image, the start of an unprecedented political comeback.
The book’s release was accompanied by an aggressive public relations campaign that included numerous interviews with Olmert. The military's permission to publish details of the Syrian reactor attack, which Israel would not admit responsibility for until that point, stirred great interest in the Israeli media. For several days, Olmert was a fixture on every screen, taking the credit he rightfully deserved for the military action. During that time, he never once expressed regret for his crimes. Instead, he continued to argue in his defense that he was a victim treated unfairly by the various law enforcement agencies, who wanted his head delivered to them on a platter. Olmert had been convicted of serious crimes before various courts, including 11 Supreme Court justices, but he still blamed everyone but himself for his fall. He showed a total lack of self-awareness when he attacked the current prime minister, who is also suspected of criminal behavior, even recommending that Benjamin Netanyahu resign.
The release of details concerning the attack in Syria restored something of the former prime minister’s lost honor, as could be expected. Even his political rivals complimented him.
Once the attack’s potential had been exhausted, Olmert moved on to the next stage in his strategy: requesting a pardon so that he can return to a position of national leadership. He's banking on the severe leadership crisis in the center-left and Netanyahu’s own entanglement in criminal proceedings creating a demand for his comeback.
On a practical level, all legal sources agree that there is very little chance of him receiving the pardon, but that he would request such a thing is infuriating. If the State of Israel is really so important to Olmert, the right thing for him to do now would be to live out his life far from the spotlight. Under no circumstance should he become a public figure again.
The idea that his contribution to state security is enough to erase his past crimes is evidence of the former prime minister’s moral blindness, and not the first. It also shows that he has lost his ability to gauge the mood among the Israeli public. Olmert was never very popular. He admitted as much in a 2007 speech after the Second Lebanon War. He knew that the only reason he was even appointed prime minister in 2006 was because his predecessor Ariel Sharon had slipped into a coma.
The Winograd Commission, which investigated the Second Lebanon War, uncovered many serious Israeli failings and determined that Olmert was responsible for most of them. While he managed to survive that crisis, he lost what political strength he once had. He was forced to resign in 2008 because of the criminal investigation into his affairs.
The idea that Olmert could be pardoned by the president and have his criminal record erased without even expressing regret for his actions shows a disconcerting lack of judgment. If Rivlin decides to go along with the move, it would be a resounding slap in the face to the war against corruption and all the people and official bodies devoted to maintaining the rule of law, the very same people who are now being subjected to a brutal delegitimization campaign by Netanyahu and the rest of the right.