Two surprising legal rulings out of Jerusalem this week underscore the complex mix of, and distinctions between, law and politics in Israel.
After a two-year trial, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was acquitted of the main charges of fraud, tax evasion, breach of trust and falsifying records.
But Olmert, the first former Israeli prime minister to stand trial, was found guilty of a lesser charge of breach of trust and could still go to jail. He is expected to appeal. He was also indicted earlier this year on charges of bribery in a major scandal over the construction of the Holyland apartments in Jerusalem.
Olmert stressed the positive after the ruling this week, asserting that the court found no illegal use of funds, and thanked the judges for their decision. But in the court of public opinion, the jury is still out, and may be for quite some time, pending the outcome of Olmert’s conviction appeal and expected trial in the Holyland matter on similar charges.
More stunning was the ruling by a distinguished judiciary committee, appointed by the government, that Israel’s settlements are legal because the land in question is not occupied territory. This reverses more than 40 years of findings by the Israeli Supreme Court. Further, the three-person panel, led by former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Edmund Levy, called on the government to legalize outposts retroactively.
Though the committee asserted that its decision was based on legal rather than political grounds, right-wing and settler groups applauded the ruling and called for it to be made into law, while those on the left denounced it as a dangerous defiance of world opinion, logic and the rule of law.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted cautiously, saying the decision must be studied. He knows well that this judicial decision is not going to sway the United States or the international community about the settlements, which they see as a hindrance to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The ruling may have been based on legalities, but the impact is certainly political. And since Israel still sees itself as abiding by international agreements and legal boundaries, we suspect that the Levy Committee’s recommendations will not be acted on anytime soon.