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A who's who of corrupt Israeli officials

In such a small country, you can find all the important decision-makers sweating in the same gym.

A man lifts weights, July 9, 2007. The Cybex Club at the David’s Citadel Hotel is where Jerusalem’s legal, political and business elite come to sweat. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — The heads of all the crime families in New York used to get together every Wednesday night at the Ravenite Social Club on Mulberry Street in Little Italy. If you were looking for an Israeli parallel, you could do worse than the gym I work out at.

The Cybex Club at the David’s Citadel Hotel has a nice view of the Ottoman walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. It’s also where the legal, political and business elite come to sweat (actually, being Israelis, they spend as much time talking as they do exercising). As I labor through my sit-ups, I’m surrounded by prime ministers, ministers, night club owners and restauranteurs, private detectives — all of them either under investigation, out on parole or formerly the targets of corruption probes.

The latest member of the Cybex cabal to hit the headlines is Uri Messer, who was arrested this week on charges of serving as an intermediary in an alleged bribery scheme. One leg of the alleged scheme is a former Cybex jock, ex-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. (The manager used to open the gym half an hour early in the morning so Olmert could run 10 kilometers on the treadmill before 7 a.m.)

The gym is instructive, because it puts Israel into perspective. What you see of Israel on the news makes the place seem so central to world politics that it’s easy to forget what a tiny country it is — not just geographically, but also socially. Maybe there’s a gym or a bar in some of the smaller U.S. states where you might see pretty much everyone who counts in the decision-making of that region. But on a national level, there’s no such place. Washington’s just too big.

In Israel, a handful of places provide a social nexus for the elite, funneling the influence and connections that dominate a $200 billion economy, and Cybex is one of them. (Vermont, by contrast, is a $27 billion economy, one of 26 U.S. states with a smaller economy than Israel.)

Messer, a close friend of Olmert, admitted a couple of years ago to keeping a slush fund of hundreds of dollars in cash in a safe for then-Prime Minister Olmert. This time he’s charged with facilitating a bribery scheme to circumvent planning restrictions in Jerusalem.

The judges in Olmert’s corruption trial are currently deciding how to rearrange forthcoming hearings, given the new evidence surrounding Messer. The former prime minister already faces trial on three separate corruption investigations and is charged on counts of aggravated fraud, fraud, falsifying documents and tax evasion.

From my window I look across the valley at the result of this latest alleged bribery scandal: the Holyland complex, a weird Lego creation of apartments strung along a ridge with a 15-story tower beside it. Every committee and planning group in the city hated the idea, but it went ahead.

Now maybe we know why.