It was as if the dismal days of 2008 had come back for a visit four years later: a frantic crush of photographers and reporters, corruption charges in the air – words like fraud, graft, and bribery linked to the highest levels of Israel’s government – and Ehud Olmert, smiling, at the center of it all.
Among the reporters gathered at the Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday morning for the verdict in three separate corruption cases against Olmert, the assumption seemed to be that conviction on most charges was likely; Olmert was widely perceived as corrupt, and had, after all, been forced from office because of the flood of charges against him. On the second floor, seven TV reporters spoke authoritatively into seven TV cameras as the court session got under way one floor up.
But the news from the courtroom turned out to be different; an “earthquake,” as one of the Hebrew news sites put it in a headline.
Facing perhaps one hundred local and international journalists bristling with millions of dollars of high-tech media equipment on the second floor of the court building after the verdict, the trained lawyer, former Jerusalem mayor and one-time prime minister, master of the heartfelt back-slap and the backroom political maneuver, celebrated his acquittal on the two main charges against him – accepting bribes in cash-stuffed envelopes from an American donor and double-billing for travel expenses.
He was, Olmert admitted to the crowd, “a bit emotional.” He didn’t look emotional; he looked triumphant.
Never mind that he had, in fact, been convicted of breach of trust for meddling in official procedures on behalf of a friend, becoming the first Israeli prime minister, current or former, ever to be found guilty of a crime; never mind that the judges’ decision that let him off on the main charges against him also described a modus operandi that clearly suggested impropriety, even if criminal deeds could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt; never mind that one of his closest aides had just been convicted on some of the very charges he managed to evade; and never mind that Olmert, a wealthy and powerful man, had paid a battery of the country’s best legal minds to fight, stymie and discredit the police and the overworked and underpaid civil servants of the State Attorney’s office. As far as Olmert was concerned, he had been wronged and he had won.
“There are no envelopes of cash, and never were,” he said. “There was no corruption, no money was received – there were none of the things they tried to link to me.”
As for the breach of trust conviction, he assured listeners in an earnest voice, “I’ll take it to heart and learn the lessons.”
He finished his statement and left the microphone, then came back to add quickly that he was “sorry” for the conviction of Shula Zaken, his longtime aide, who remained silent in police questioning in what has been widely seen as an attempt to protect her boss. “I obviously feel her pain,” he said.
Zaken, in a white sweater, was standing nearby. Convicted of fraud and breach of trust, she faces jail time. Olmert will be sentenced only in September, but experts assume he will not be sent to prison. He still faces corruption charges in a different case involving a real estate project in Jerusalem, and his political career now appears to depend largely on the outcome of that case.
Speaking for the prosecution, attorney Eli Abarbanel said the court had pointed to “unacceptable behavior” on Olmert’s part, but had to admit the judges had rejected the main points of the prosecution’s case.
“We did not expect this,” he said.
Tuesday’s victors — the former prime minister, his lawyers, and a few influential friends who were present in court — made it clear that those who tried to prosecute Olmert should now watch their backs.
It was “too early,” Olmert said, to criticize those who had initiated the charges against him, forcing him to step down as prime minister. The implication was that the time would come.
The head of his legal team, Eli Zohar, went a bit further, saying that the official who made the decision to begin proceedings against Olmert while he was still in office – State Attorney Moshe Lador – was personally responsible. “You can interpret that as you wish,” Zohar told the assembled reporters.
A friend of Olmert, prominent newspaperman Amnon Dankner, said the state attorney “should be ashamed and do some soul-searching.”
Then he added that he “shouldn’t just resign – he should commit suicide.”
Another friend, former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, was at the court building telling reporters that they could expect to see Olmert back in politics soon – and that he might well be prime minister again.