Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday partially upheld the conviction of Ehud Olmert in the Holyland corruption trial, making history by sending the former prime minister to prison. Ehud Olmert was one of eight former officials and businessmen convicted in March 2014 in a real estate corruption case officials have characterized as the largest in Israel’s history.
While it struck down one bribery conviction for Olmert’s part in the so-called Holyland scandal, it upheld another, reducing the former prime minister’s sentence from six years to 18 months. He and others whose convictions were upheld Tuesday in the case will begin to serve out their sentences on February 15.
Speaking to reporters after the decision was handed down, Olmert sought to emphasize his relief over his acquittal in the more severe of the two bribery counts, while maintaining his innocence in the second one as well.
“The last four years were difficult,” he said, describing “a dark cloud that hung over” him and his family, and asserting that “a heavy weight had been lifted” from his shoulders.
Olmert, 70, was convicted in 2014 of accepting bribes when he served as mayor of Jerusalem and as minister of industry and trade, in exchange for helping win municipal approval for the Holyland residential development near the capital’s southern Malha neighborhood.
Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rozen originally sentenced Olmert to six years in prison and two more probation, alongside a million-shekel ($260,000) fine and the confiscation of some NIS 500,000 ($130,000) in assets.
Rozen had ruled that the former prime minister — felled from his lofty office in 2009 as multiple corruption investigations made it difficult for him to function as premier — had to have been aware that NIS 500,000 was given to his brother Yossi and NIS 60,000 ($15,400) more to his longtime secretary Shula Zaken by businessman Shmuel Dachner, who would turn state’s witness in the trial.
The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that there was insufficient evidence to assert that Olmert was aware of the money being funneled to his brother, but that he knew of the cash that Dachner was giving to Zaken.
As expected, the court drastically reduced the sentence of former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski — from six years behind bars to six months, commuted into community service. In Lupolianski’s case, the bribes did not go to him directly, but to the Yad Sarah charity he leads. The former Jerusalem mayor also suffers from ill health. He said after the ruling that he would seek to continue “to offer assistance to the public.”
Olmert and the other men convicted in the case were originally slated to begin their prison term on September 1, 2014, but the Supreme Court ruled that they could remain free until the end of their appeals process.
Olmert faces an additional eight-month prison sentence in the so-called Talansky affair, which was also delayed until his Holyland appeal options were exhausted. He was found guilty earlier this year of accepting envelopes full of cash from American businessman and fundraiser Morris Talansky in exchange for political favors during his decade-long stint as mayor of Jerusalem. His sentence included a fine of NIS 100,000 ($26,000).
Including Olmert and Lupolianski, the court on Tuesday handed down judgments on a total of eight appeals against convictions given by the Tel Aviv District Court in the case, partially accepting some of the petitions and rejecting others outright.
The six individuals who challenged the convictions alongside Olmert and Lupolianski were developer Hillel Charney, businessman Avigdor Kelner, developer Meir Rabin, former Jerusalem city engineer Uri Shitrit, former deputy Jerusalem mayor Eliezer Simhayoff, businessman Danny Dankner.
The appeals of Hillel Charney and Avigdor Kelner were partially accepted, with Charney’s prison sentence reduced from three-and-a-half years sentence to 26 months, and Kelner given two instead of three years.
But the court rejected the petitions from Rabin and Shitrit, maintaining their prison sentences of five and seven years, respectively.
The appeal of Dani Dankner, a former chairman of the Hapoalim Bank, was largely rejected, with the court reducing his sentence from three to two years in prison. Danker was released from prison earlier this year after serving a six-month prison sentence on a separate fraud conviction.
Olmert was first elected to Knesset in 1978, at the age of 28, and quickly gained a reputation as a tough corruption buster. In 2006, following Ariel Sharon’s incapacitating stroke, and after almost three decades in a series of public offices, he took over as prime minister.
His term in office included the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and an unprecedented 2008 offer to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Olmert offered to withdraw from the entire West Bank with one-for-one land swaps, to divide Jerusalem into Israeli and Palestinian areas, and to relinquish Israeli sovereignty in the Old City in favor of an international tribunal. Abbas did not accept the terms.
He stepped down in 2009 as corruption allegations mounted against him.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.