Two cabinet members forced Ehud Olmert to step down as prime minister and leader of the Kadima party in 2009 under a cloud. He has since fought the general prosecution tooth and nail for indicting him on bribe charges in his former capacities as Jerusalem mayor and minister of commerce and industry. He was backed by a powerful and vocal following and friends in the media, who accused the prosecutors of obsessively hounding him.
Olmert go off lightly in his first trial last year for receiving cash in envelopes from a businessman and double-booking his foreign travel fares. The Jerusalem district court acquitted him of three out of four charges. This encouraged him to try and launch a political comeback by public appearances and interviews at home and abroad, meanwhile setting up business concerns with his cronies.
That hope was finally knocked on the head Monday, March 31, by Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rosen. He convicted the former prime minister on the most severe bribe charges ever leveled against an Israeli public figure, making him liable for a stiff prison sentence.
In the 1990s, Mayor Olmert, his deputy and other town hall officials issued the developers of the Jerusalem Holy Land project building permits after receiving bribes to bypass legal and zoning restrictions.
The judge accused Olmert of personal corruption and the corruption of an entire level of government by a criminal conspiracy to share out illicit money. He called him a liar and painted the picture of crook who consistently exploited high office to enrich himself and his family by selling his services for ill-gotten moneys.
Convicted along with Olmert were nine other defendants including Olmert’s successor as Jerusalem mayor, Uri Lupoliansky, former Bank Hapoalim chaiman Dan Dankner, the former prime minister’s long-term senior aide Shula Zaken, who was described as responsible for “opening the doors” to his office, as well other town officials, developers and go-betweens.
Lupoliansky used the money for his charity Yad Sarah. Three others defendants were acquitted.
Judge Rosen praised the state prosecution for its perseverance against formidable pressures. He said the state did the right thing in striking a plea bargain with the late Shmuel Duchner when he represented the Holy Land group, as a means to expose the conspiracy and bring the conspirators to justice.
The judge dismissed Olmert’s claim that Duchner had advanced him the sum of half a million shekels out of friendship. “Duchner brought Olmert’s services. This was a business arrangement,” said Rosen.
Shula Zaken, after years of silence in support of her former boss, recently turned state’s evidence and produced new incriminating materials against him. She and Olmert face further questioning.
Judge Rosen preferred to leave the new development to a future hearing and go ahead with the convictions as scheduled for March 31 without delay. Another date will be set for sentencing. Olmert and Co. are expected to file appeals to the high court.
Many ordinary Israelis will be asking how a politician of Ehud Olmert’s ilk was allowed to reach such high station with responsibility for distributing the national wealth as minister of trade and commerce and the authority to decide if and when the country went to war as prime minister. Who knows what his real calculations were on July 21, 2006, when as premier he declared war on Hizballah in Lebanon – launching one of Israel’s worst battlefield’s disasters?