Former prime minister Ehud Olmert took the stand for the first time as a witness for the defense in the so-called Holyland case Sunday, telling the court that he saw the residential complex as important to the capital’s development and never took a bribe to push it through.
Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, said in Tel Aviv District Court that he treated the entrepreneurs involved in the Holyland project just like any other businessmen seeking to initiate a major project in the capital. Although he supported the project, he said, he did not have a special relationship with, nor accept any money from, late real estate developer Shmuel Dachner, the star witness for the prosecution who, before his death in March, testified that Olmert and other city officials took money in exchange for favors.
From the first time he heard about the Holyland project, Olmert said, he knew it was “important.” Presented during a time when “we really wanted to develop the city,” the former mayor said, the plan for a large luxury residential development in the south of the city was “exciting.”
“I said what I always say to developers: ‘You build, and we will try to help,’” Olmert told the court. He said he backed the project because it seemed “like the right thing at the time.”
When asked about his relationship with Dachner, Olmert said that it was similar to those he had with other businessmen. Dachner, who Olmert said was “stubborn” during their dealings, was presented to the then-mayor as the project manager for the Holyland construction.
Olmert dismissed a piece of the prosecution’s evidence which it said showed a special relationship between the two, a photo of Olmert and Dachner together at a function, as spurious. “If you took a photo from all the ceremonies I have participated in at different times, you would find me with hundreds of people with a hand on their shoulder,” Olmert said.
Dachner was suspected of funneling millions of dollars in bribes to Jerusalem officials and civil servants in order to expand the original Holyland project from a modest hotel to a huge multi-tower complex which some deride as a blot on the city’s landscape. Much of the case against Olmert hinged on Dachner’s testimony, who before his death appeared in over 70 hearings related to the affair.
Olmert stated on Sunday that he “never accepted a penny” from Dachner, and dismissed bribery allegations as empty “stories.”
Last year, Olmert lashed out at Dachner publicly, calling him a “dubious liar,” and, on Sunday, he said that “the Dachner we know today, from what he has said… was not the same” as the man who first presented himself as an entrepreneur seeking to build in Jerusalem.
Responding to another allegation, Olmert derided the notion that he had taken money to help his brother Yossi, who was in financial trouble.
Olmert’s testimony is expected to last several days.
The Holyland affair, billed as one of the largest corruption scandals in Israel’s history, has entangled dozens of city officials, along with Olmert, who are accused of accepting bribes in exchange for giving the go-ahead to developers to far exceed their original building mandate.
Olmert was sentenced in September 2012 to a suspended yearlong jail term and a NIS 75,000 fine (some $19,000), following his landmark conviction for a separate, relatively minor breach of trust charge from his time as a government minister, and was cleared in two other, major cases against him. This left him technically free to return to political life pending the resolution of the Holyland case, where a verdict is expected in 2014.