JERUSALEM -- Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced Monday to a suspended one-year jail term and a $20,000 fine in the high-profile corruption case that drove him from office nearly four years ago.
Olmert was convicted in July of breaching public trust for using his previous position as trade minister to help a business associate. But an Israeli court cleared him of the most serious charges in the case, including fraud, double-billing for travel expenses and concealing large cash gifts.
Olmert and his supporters praised the sentence, which fell short of prosecutors’ call for six months of community service. The lighter sentence clears the way for Olmert to return to politics if he wishes, though he is still fighting an indictment in a separate bribery case involving a real estate deal during his tenure as Jerusalem mayor.
Some of the former Kadima Party chairman’s backers are urging Olmert to run again for a seat in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, and challenge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Had the court found Olmert guilty of “moral turpitude” or sentenced him to more than three months in jail, he would have been legally barred from serving in the Knesset for seven years.
Olmert has shrugged off questions about his political future, though he called the court’s ruling and sentence a vindication. He had long characterized the corruption case against him as a political witch hunt.
Emerging from court Monday, a smiling Olmert said he left “with my head held high.”
Jerusalem District Court Judge Musya Arad called Olmert’s actions “a grave crime, not a procedural error.” But she noted that the suspended jail sentence was sufficient because the case had already cost Olmert his job as prime minister.
[Updated 8:55 a.m. Sept. 24: Olmert originally was charged with accepting cash-stuffed envelopes from American businessman Morris Talansky, double-billing for travel expenses abroad and steering government contracts and grants to supporters. He could have faced five years in prison if convicted of the more serious charges, which involving several hundred thousand dollars.
His case is one of several recent corruption and misconduct inquiries that have undercut Israelis' faith in their leaders. Last year, former President Moshe Katsav was convicted of rape and is serving a seven-year jail sentence. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is facing possible indictment over allegations of bribery and influence peddling.]
Olmert is Israel’s first former primer minister to be convicted of a criminal offense. Some critics found the sentence too lenient.
“On the one hand, the court says his actions were dangerously corrupt," said Israel Radio legal analyst Moshe Negbi. “On the other hand, they hand down a forgiving sentence, thus allowing him to return to public service tomorrow morning.”
-- Edmund Sanders
Photo: Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, center, talks with his attorneys Monday during his sentencing hearing for a corruption case at Jerusalem's District Court. Credit: Sebastian Scheiner, pool / Getty Images