Guilty of corruption - but Olmert sees chance for return to power

Israeli former leader who nearly made peace with Palestinians is acquitted of more serious charges
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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday celebrated what his supporters saw as a major victory when he was acquitted of two of the high-profile corruption charges that drove him from office

Olmert was convicted on a lesser charge of breach of trust. But the surprise not-guilty verdict in two other publicity-drenched cases sent shock waves through Israel’s political and legal establishment, triggered immediate questions about the decision to prosecute, and prompted allies to suggest he could be heading for a comeback.

Olmert was cleared in Jerusalem District Court of illegally accepting funds - much of it allegedly in stuffed envelopes - from the Jewish-American businessman Morris Talansky, and of double-billing Jewish groups for the cost of trips abroad while mayor of the city  and later, during his tenure as Industry Minister.

The conviction was for granting job appointments and contracts to clients of Uri Messer, a lawyer and close associate, when Olmert was Industry and Trade Minister. He will be sentenced in September, though his lawyer insisted after the hearing that there was no precedent for a jail term on a single charge of breach of trust.

Even if the former Prime Minister is given a light sentence, he is far from being in the clear. He is still on trial for another serious corruption charge - taking bribes to favour the construction of the huge and much criticized Holyland residential complex while he was mayor of Jerusalem.

But the two acquittals have already set in motion a bout of soul-searching by some politicians and commentators over the enforced end to an Olmert premiership which launched two bloody and bitterly controversial wars (in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-9) but which also brought Israel its closest ever to a peace agreement with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, in the eyes of many diplomats.

Knesset member Yoel Hasson said the indictment had "wronged one of the best prime ministers Israel has ever had”. He added: "The Israeli public finally understands that a prime minister was impeached for nothing. I hope this acquittal will pave his way back to politics"

The intensive talks Olmert, who was leader of the centrist Kadima party, held as outgoing Prime Minister with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, were also interrupted by the Gaza offensive. But the 2009 elections, caused by his departure over the corruption charges, brought Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, to power. Since then, there has been no political progress between the two sides in the conflict.

After he left the court with a smile, wearing an open-necked blue buttoned-down shirt, Olmert told reporters that Israelis would be hearing more of him. He added: "There was no corruption. There was no taking of money. There was no use of money. There were no cash envelopes. There was nothing of what they tried to attribute to me."

The court said the single conviction at yesterday’s hearing reflected a "harsh conflict of interests between his commitment to the public as a senior public servant and his personal commitment to advocate Messer." Olmert described it as a “procedural matter” from which he would nevertheless “learn lessons”.

In May, Olmert told CNN that his efforts to secure a peace deal that would have involved, among other things, handing East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, had been thwarted by “millions and millions of dollars” transferred by Americans “from the extreme right wing that were aimed to topple me as Prime Minister of Israel.”

The newspaper Maariv reported ahead of the verdicts yesterday that Olmert was planning a political comeback if acquitted, or provided any convictions did not carry the Israeli legal label of “ moral turpitude”, which would bar him from holding office for up to seven years.

Haifa University legal analyst Emmanuel Gross, told Associated Press yesterday he doubted the label would be conferred because “ even though Olmert failed, his breach of duty was not accompanied with any benefit for himself"     

Avraham Burg, a left wing former Speaker of the Knesset said “ The political map changed this morning before our very eyes. It's too early to tell exactly how, but the change is very clear."

Rise and fall: Olmert's history

1973 Serves under Ariel Sharon in the Yom Kippur war, before being elected to the Knesset.

1993 After serving as a minister in several departments and on a number of parliamentary committees, he is elected Mayor of Jerusalem.

2003 Returns to the Knesset after a decade running Jerusalem. He joins Sharon's government as designated acting Prime Minister and Minister of Industry, Trade and Labour. Two years later, Olmert replaces Benjamin Netanyahu as Finance Minister after the now-Prime Minister resigns over the withdrawal from Gaza.

2006 Appointed acting Prime Minister after Sharon suffers a stroke. Elected Prime Minister, but is being investigated over property deals during his tenure as Jerusalem Mayor, and then over corruption during his time as a minister.

2009 His premiership ends after more allegations.

2012 Stands trial.