Visibly relaxed Olmert in courtroom to hear verdict on corruption cases

Visibly relaxed Olmert in courtroom to hear verdict on corruption cases

Charges include illegally accepting funds from an American supporter, double-billing Jewish groups for trips abroad and giving jobs to unqualified political cronies

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert strolled into the Jerusalem District court Tuesday morning, ahead of the reading of a verdict that could see him become the highest-ranking former official to go to jail.

Smiling and shaking hands with supporters, Olmert looked visibly relaxed before hearing his fate in three separate corruption scandals.

The reading of the verdict caps a five-year saga that has plunged the country into uncharted legal waters.

Olmert could become the first Israeli ex-premier to be convicted of a serious crime that carries a prison term. An acquittal, on the other hand, could raise questions about whether an overzealous prosecution hounded him from office.

“There is no precedent to this,” said legal analyst Emanuel Gross. “The state of Israel, unlike many other democratic states, has taken the rule of law to its optimal place. This trial proves that no one is above the law, not even the prime minister.”

Under Israeli legal precedent, a cabinet minister, including a premier, must step down if he is indicted for a serious crime. Olmert was charged in September 2009, and he resigned.

The verdicts Tuesday — set to be handed shortly after 9 a.m. Israel time — cover three separate cases: illegally accepting funds from American supporter Moshe Talansky, double-billing Jewish groups for trips abroad and giving jobs to unqualified political cronies.

Talansky has testified to giving Olmert hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of it in envelopes stuffed with cash. Olmert has denied any wrongdoing.

The trial covered offenses allegedly committed before Olmert became prime minister, while he served as mayor of Jerusalem and later as a Cabinet minister. The charges were filed only after he became premier.

If convicted on all the charges, Olmert could face up to five years in prison.

Olmert’s legal woes will not end with Tuesday’s verdict. He is still facing a separate trial in which he is accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to promote the contentious Holyland building project in Jerusalem when he was the city’s mayor and later the cabinet minister of industry and trade.

The flurry of allegations hurt Olmert’s chances of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians. Olmert claimed to be close to an accord just as he was driven from the premiership.

Since leaving office, Olmert has said he offered the Palestinians a peace deal under which Israel would have ceded about 93.5 percent of the West Bank, along with Israeli territory to make up for the 6.5 percent of the West Bank land that Israel would retain. He also proposed international administration of east Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy sites.

At the time, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator said they turned down the offer because they were not willing to compromise over full control of east Jerusalem.

Negotiations have been largely frozen since Olmert left office.

There were other instances of corruption in Olmert’s cabinet. His former finance minister was sentenced to five years for embezzlement, and another member of his cabinet was sentenced to four years for taking bribes. Neither case occurred while the two were in the cabinet.

Last year, former president Moshe Katsav was sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted of rape and other sex crimes. He served as president from 2000 to 2007.

Olmert faced corruption accusations throughout his long political career but has never been convicted.

The 66-year-old Olmert has largely stayed out of the public eye since stepping down.

A veteran politician known less as a statesman than as a backroom dealmaker, Olmert was catapulted unexpectedly into the country’s top job when a stroke incapacitated his predecessor, Ariel Sharon.

Besides the inconclusive peace efforts with the Palestinians, his term was marked by a war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah in 2006 and a bruising offensive in Gaza in early 2009 that largely halted years of Palestinian rocket fire.

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