JERUSALEM – An Israeli court on Tuesday cleared former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of the most serious corruption charges against him, including hiding illegal cash gifts and double-billing, but convicted the ex-premier on a lesser count of breach-of-trust.
The split decision caps a five-year corruption probe that drove Olmert from office in 2009. However, this doesn't mark the end to his legal problems. He still faces a separate bribery trial involving a controversial Jerusalem real estate development built while Olmert was mayor of the holy city.
Tuesday’s verdict was widely seen as vindication for the former Kadima Party chairman, who had always insisted he was innocent and that any improprieties or illegal activities were either fabricated or the result of mismanagement and disorganization in his office.
Nevertheless, Olmert, 63, becomes the highest-ranking political figure in Israel’s history to be convicted of criminal activity.
His case is one of a several corruption and misconduct probes that have eroded Israelis’ faith in their government leaders.
Last year, former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was convicted of rape and is currently serving a seven-year jail sentence. Current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is facing indictment over allegations of bribery and influence-peddling, though no charges have been filed.
The original 61-page indictment against Olmert accused him of accepting cash-stuffed envelopes from American businessman Morris Talansky, double-billing for travel expenses abroad and steering government contracts and grants to supporters. The allegations centered on Olmert’s term as Jerusalem mayor and later trade minister, but they surfaced after he’d been elected as prime minister in 2006.
He could have faced five years in prison if convicted of the more serious charges.
But in the end, the court ruled that Olmert was guilty only of trying to grant favors to a friend and former law associate while serving as Israel’s trade minister.
Sentencing will be announced at a later date.
Some believe the prosecution against Olmert changed the face of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because his government was actively involved in peace talks and had offered to make significant concessions toward creating a Palestinian state. But talks collapsed at the end of 2008 as Olmert’s administration began to crumble.
-- Edmund Sanders
Photo: Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is escorted toward the District Court for the first day of his trial on charges of corruption. Credit: Amit Shabi / EPA