By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times
JERUSALEM — Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted Monday of accepting bribes in a case called one of the nation’s largest corruption scandals, ending an intense two-year trial and most likely his political career.
Tel Aviv District Court convicted Olmert and nine other defendants — including real-estate developers, a former mayor, a former city engineer, a former bank chairman and former councilmen and aides — of accepting or taking bribes. Three other people were acquitted.
Olmert was acquitted of two counts of bribery but convicted of two others, one involving approximately $140,000 in a series of post-dated checks given to his financially distressed brother, Yossi Olmert, by a third person who turned state witness and later died during the trial.
Ehud Olmert is the first prime minister to be convicted and quite probably face jail time, although he joins the growing list of former Israeli politicians convicted of crimes that include financial corruption and rape.
The Holyland scandal, named after the towering real-estate project dominating one of Jerusalem’s hilltops, broke in 2010 with the arrests of senior businessmen and Jerusalem city officials suspected of pushing through the widely disputed project through bribery, and financial and bureaucratic misconduct.
The investigation revealed an intricate web of widespread corruption and a massive mechanism of bribes, money laundering and mutual favors exchanged between entrepreneurs, city hall and interested parties. The scandal involved cutting corners and bending zoning laws to secure permits and perks for the project, while quashing objections to the controversial development.
Olmert, who was mayor of Jerusalem between 1993 and 2003 while the project was under way, and his fellow defendants were indicted in August 2010. Uri Lupoliansky, who succeeded Olmert as mayor, was also indicted.
After the verdict Monday, prosecutor Yonatan Tadmor told the media the “court has spoken in a loud, clear voice: no more corruption in government.”
From now on, “every giver or taker of bribes must know their actions will come to light,” said the prosecutor, who vowed authorities would be relentless in combating corruption.
Attorney Roi Blecher, one of several lawyers representing Olmert, said the defense would study the 700-page ruling carefully and consider its next moves. Petitions to appeal the verdict must be submitted within 45 days. “This is not a simple day for Mr. Olmert,” Blecher said.
Meanwhile, the court will reconvene at the end of April to discuss sentencing. Olmert’s crimes are punishable by up to seven years in jail, although even considerably lighter sentencing would be enough to bar him from returning to the political system for many years, effectively ending the 68-year-old politician’s career.
Olmert became prime minister in 2006. His term was marked by military campaigns such as the 2006 war against Hezbollah and Israel’s month-long military campaign in Gaza in 2009 but also peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Olmert’s term was brought to an early end in 2009 over separate corruption charges alleging he had received cash-stuffed envelopes from a U.S. businessman. He was cleared of that case in 2012.
In a Facebook post, the opposition Labor Party’s chairman Isaac Herzog welcomed the verdict and hailed it as a “mark of honor” for law enforcement and the battle against governmental corruption in Israel, while feeling “personally sorry” for Olmert.
Many objected to the Holyland project, a massive chain of towers strung together on a hilltop, claiming it contravened Jerusalem’s entire aesthetic, environmental and urban rationale.
The buildings have long since grown on some. But Herzog wrote that the towers would remain a “monument to greed.”
Photo: Templar1307 via Flickr