Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was found guilty yesterday of a corruption charge in the nation’s first criminal trial against a former prime minister, but acquitted on two other counts in what was widely seen as a significant victory for him.
Although Olmert was convicted of fraud and breach of trust, he was found not guilty on more serious charges that included allegations that he received cash bribes from a US businessman and double-billed Israeli charities for overseas fund-raising trips.
It was not immediately clear when Olmert, 66, would be sentenced. He could face up to five years in jail.
The former prime minister is also battling, in a separate case, charges over the construction of a hulking luxury apartment complex that dominates a Jerusalem hilltop.
Olmert was accused of taking about US$150,000 from the US businessman, pocketing more than US$92,000 by double-billing the charities and helping to advance the business interests of a long-time friend.
He denied any wrongdoing. The court convicted him only in connection with aiding his friend while serving as minister of trade and industry before becoming prime minister in 2006.
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper described the verdict on its Web site as a “crushing defeat” for the prosecution. The popular Ynet news site, called the outcome a “legal earthquake,” confounding widespread expectations of a triple conviction.
The US businessman, Morris Talansky, testified that he gave Olmert envelopes containing hundreds of thousands of US dollars. Olmert says the money was used for electioneering, denying he benefited personally in return for advancing the businessman’s interests.
The Israeli court said prosecutors had failed to prove the payments were illegal.
Olmert resigned as Israel’s prime minister in September 2008 after the accusations surfaced, saying he wanted to clear his name. However, he stayed on as caretaker until March 2009 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was sworn in.
Olmert claimed he had achieved significant progress in talks with the Palestinians aimed at securing a final Middle East peace deal, offering an Israeli withdrawal from much of the occupied West Bank.
However, no agreement was reached and negotiations held under Netanyahu collapsed in 2010 in a dispute over Israeli settlement building on land Palestinians want for a state.
Prosecutors said millions of US dollars in bribes were paid to Olmert, Jerusalem’s mayor from 1993 to 2003, and other civil servants to ensure the approval of plans for the Holyland Towers. Olmert has denied this.
Israel has already put a former head of state behind bars.
Former Isreali president Moshe Katsav was convicted last year of raping an aide when he was a cabinet minister in the late 1990s and molesting or sexually harassing two other women who worked for him during his 2000 to 2007 term as president. He began serving a seven-year prison sentence in December last year.