Israel’s former Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, starts a 19 month jail sentence today. The Washington Post reports:
Olmert is the first Israeli prime minister to spend time behind bars, a fact that commentators here acknowledged with a mix of both pride and shame.
Pride that the Israeli justice system in this case was both robust and impartial, that even the rich and powerful can be held to account. And shame that an internationally known Israeli leader could be exposed as a dirty politician who not only solicited bribes, but conspired to obstruct justice.
Olmert was found guilty in March 2014 of taking money from real estate developers to build a massive luxury apartment complex in Jerusalem, called Holyland, when he was mayor of the city.[..]
In a separate case, Olmert was also convicted of accepting campaign contributions from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky in exchange for political favors when he was mayor.
This news is a useful reminder that Israel, with all of its problems and flaws, remains a country with a vigorous democracy, an independent judiciary, and a place where even the most powerful politicians are accountable to the law.
With the chaos in Syria to its north, and the repression in Egypt to the south, Israel looks more than ever like an island of calm in a stormy region. As its neighbors rip themselves to shreds in sectarian war and fanatical terror campaigns, Israel continues to be a global leader in tech innovation and continues to integrate immigrants in a way that much of Europe can only envy.
Israel shares some of the problems of its neighbors. Israeli society is polarized between deeply religious and militantly secular groups. Ethnic tensions—between Jews and Palestinians, but also among Jews from such different places and cultures as Yemen, Ethiopia, and Russia—divide Israeli society. The dangerous regional climate forces the country to spend heavily on defense. The economy is dangerously exposed to a world system in turmoil.
Yet unlike its neighbors, Israel somehow works. The Jews, most of whom arrived as penniless refugees and shell shocked survivors of persecution (whether from Europe or the Middle East), somehow managed to build a modern state, a successful economy and a national identity. Israel is one of the most successful postcolonial societies in the world; while its shortcomings deserve continued scrutiny and criticism, its successes and accomplishments should also be studied.