President Shimon Peres said Monday that the conviction of former prime minister Ehud Olmert for accepting bribes marked a sad day for Israel.
“I heard about the verdict this morning,” he said. “I haven’t read the details yet, but I can say that this is a sad day for the State of Israel.”
While echoing Peres’s sentiments, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel said Olmert’s conviction also offered some hope that Israel was beginning to tackle a political culture stained by corruption.
“This is a sad day mixed with some hope for a cleaner future,” the democracy watchdog group said in a statement. “This is a resounding wake-up call to those responsible for the fight against filth and corruption.”
The Tel Aviv District Court on Monday morning convicted Olmert, along with nine other former senior officials and businessmen, of taking and giving bribes in the development of the Holyland construction project promoted while Olmert was mayor of the city over a decade ago.
The ruling marked the first time a former Israeli prime minister has been convicted of bribery in what has been called one of the worst corruption scandals in the country’s history.
The verdict, and what legal experts predict will be a lengthy prison sentence, appeared to put an end to Olmert’s lingering hopes of making a comeback to national politics, but the prevailing theme coming from the Olmert camp was that “the last word” has not been spoken in the case.
“We will weigh our options going forward,” lead defense attorney Roy Blecher said outside the courtroom. “The last word has not been said. Today is not just about Mr. Olmert. We will read the 700-page verdict and prepare accordingly for sentencing.”
Olmert spokesman Amir Dan echoed Belcher’s sentiments, adding that Olmert was also acquitted of two key counts. The former prime minister’s attorneys did not immediately say that they would appeal the verdict.
“This is obviously not an easy day,” he said. “We have a lot of respect for the court. You have to remember that the court acquitted Olmert on two main counts. The verdict was based on a state’s witness that the court declared was a forger and a liar and whom we did not have time to cross-examine. We will study the verdict carefully, and this is not the final word.”
Another attorney for Olmert, Eli Zohar, pointed out that the court had determined that the former prime minister had never “put money into his own pocket.”
Olmert’s brother, Yermi, was defiant in the face of the verdict, saying that there were still more questions that need to be answered.
“Nobody is asking where the checks are,” he said. “Everybody is talking about these checks and that they were cashed and that somebody cashed them. It leaves a lot of question marks.”
Former Olmert aide Shula Zaken, who was also convicted on several charges despite turning state’s witness four days before the verdict, also indicated that she had more to say.
“The day will come when I say everything that is in my heart,” she said. “I said the day will come when I say everything that is in my heart.
“Respect this matter, respect the court, and let me go home to my children and grandchildren,” she told reporters.
The judge had earlier rejected Zaken’s plea bargain with the prosecution.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle didn’t pull any punches in hailing the verdict and assailing Olmert.
“Judge Rozen didn’t buy the media spin of Olmert and his associates and convicted the most corrupt politician in the history of the state for accepting bribes,” Meretz party chairwoman MK Zahava Gal-on said.
Calling it “an important day for the rule of law,” Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich welcomed Olmert’s conviction, adding that the former prime minister was “a convicted felon who repeatedly exploited his power and connections for decades to get rich, but had escaped time and again” from justice until today.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home party, called the verdict a “step forward” for the country.
“The State of Israel has taken a big step forward today toward a more moral leadership,” he wrote on Facebook. “Israel has cleansed itself of corruption.
“A leader is allowed to make mistakes, but may not be corrupt. Corruption is when you use the public office for personal gain. The minute a public servant starts working in his own interests instead of the public’s, the public stops believing in him and the country.”
Elie Leshem and AFP contributed to this report.