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Supreme Court set to hand down final ruling in Olmert Holyland appeal

Case involved one of the largest corruption investigations in country’s history; if appeal fails, Ehud Olmert will be first Israeli PM to go to jail

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem court on March 30, 2015. (Emil Salman/POOL)
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem court on March 30, 2015. (Emil Salman/POOL)

Israel’s Supreme Court was set to hand down its ruling Tuesday morning in the Holyland corruption trial, likely making history by sending a former prime minister to prison. Ehud Olmert was one of eight former officials and businessmen convicted in March 2014 in a corruption case officials have characterized as the largest in Israel’s history.

Olmert was convicted 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 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 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 — could not have been unaware that NIS 500,000 were 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.

In the intervening months, Zaken herself handed to investigators recordings she had made of conversations with her boss that allegedly show him explicitly instructing her on dealing with the funds received, and even coordinating testimony for the trial. Zaken turned on Olmert when he told investigators the alleged crimes were committed by her, though Olmert’s attorneys have argued against accepting as evidence recordings that were withheld throughout the investigation and trial, accusing Zaken of editing or otherwise fabricating their content.

Zaken delivered the recordings as part of a plea bargain she struck only days before the sentencing in the trial. She was handed a relatively minor sentence of 11 months in prison, which she finished serving earlier this year and was released.

In the appeal, Olmert’s attorneys have argued that Dachner, who died during the trial before the defense could cross-examine him, was not a trustworthy witness. Prosecutors, meanwhile, maintain that there is a mountain of external evidence that corroborates Dachner’s account of Olmert’s actions.

If the Supreme Court, in a panel of five justices chaired by Justice Salim Joubran, accepts Olmert’s appeal Tuesday morning, that, too, could be unprecedented, given Olmert’s conviction, the seriousness of his crimes, and the widely publicized evidence against him.

The case is an unusually complex one. Eight defendants are part of the appeal, including former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski. In Lupolianski’s case, where the bribes did not go to him directly, but to the Yad Sarah charity he leads, the court must consider what sort of benefit Lupolianski derived before deciding whether to overturn none, part or all of the conviction or sentence in his case.

In Olmert’s case, too, the former prime minister, now 70, seems to be hoping for a reduced sentence, arguing that the evidence leaves sufficient room for doubt to offset Rozen’s argument for a severe sentence as a deterrent to future corruption.

The seven individuals who challenged the convictions alongside Olmert are developer Hillel Charney, businessman Avigdor Kelner, developer Meir Rabin, former Jerusalem city engineer Uri Shitrit, former deputy Jerusalem mayor Eliezer Simhayoff, businessman Danny Dankner, and Lupolianski.

Dankner, a former chairman of the Hapoalim bank, one of Israel’s largest, served a year in prison on a separate fraud conviction.

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 draws to a close.

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).

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