Ehud Olmert has been part of Israeli government since his first election to the Knesset in 1973. He served on key committees dealing with foreign affairs, defense and finance; had a term as a minister without portfolio, climbed to the position of Health Mister, went higher as Mayor of Jerusalem, returned to the Knesset, negotiated the coalition formed after the election of 2003, and began a series of ministerial positions dealing with Industry, Communications, Finance, and--after the incapacity of Ariel Sharon--became Prime Minister.
Early on, Olmert attracted the attention of those concerned with good government. He was one of the first politicians singled out for criticism by name in a report of Israel's State Comptroller. The occasion was the auditor's conclusion that--as Minister of Health--Olmert steered contracts for the purchase of hospital equipment to a company owned by a prominent member of Olmert's Likud Party. Olmert refused the State Comptroller's demand for documentation, and the issue was allowed to die without actions taken against him.
Since 2006 Olmert has been standing as the accused, or one of the accused in a number of judicial proceedings. The media has called him a serially corrupt politician, the most corrupt to have reached the position of prime minister, and--despite considerable competition for such a title--the most corrupt politician in Israel's history. Among the charges have been the receipt of illegal campaign contributions, bribery, political favoritism, fraud, breach of trust, faulty reporting, and the improper receipt of multiple reimbursements for overseas trips.
Until now, Olmert and his cadre of attorneys and public relations specialists have evaded a guilty verdict important enough to involve any punishment. Trials ended with judges ruling that the state had not provided convincing evidence of criminal intent, including one case where a witness testified to several instances of handing over of envelopes containing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.
Now we have the verdict in a trial in which Olmert, along with another former mayor of Jerusalem and several businessmen were accused of giving or receiving bribes in regard to the approval of a major housing development. During this and previous trials, a potentially major witness with inside knowledge of Olmert's dealings--long time aide Shula Zaken--maneuvered around any clear statement of handling for him anything improper.
All that changed, however, when in the final stages, both Olmert and one of his attorneys sought to explain transactions as the primary work of Ms Zaken. In a huff reflecting lady scorned and several decades of loyalty turned on its head, Zaken then sought to convince the prosecutors of stories she had avoided telling in her earlier testimony. At a time when the judge had already prepared a lengthy verdict scheduled to be read in court, the prosecutor--after negotiations with Zaken and her attorneys and several changes of story--asked the judge to delay his rulings in order to give Zaken a chance to be heard again.
Reports are that Zaken provided prosecutors with recordings and other hard evidence that Olmert sought to influence her earlier testimony.
If that is true, Olmert is open to the serious charge of witness tampering.
Throughout the trial, Ehud Olmert continued to operate as a major political figure, temporarily out of office. He spoke at some of Israel's most prestigious venues, traveled overseas for additional appearances in contrast to the more conventional need of an accused to surrender the passport and stay close to court. He has roundly criticized the serving Prime Minister for failing to reach an agreement with Palestinians, which Olmert claims to have almost achieved during his last days in office.
There appears no problem in paying for the sizable staff managing Olmert's legal problems, and--at least until the reading of the verdict--no shortage of prominent Israelis asserting that he was being unfairly pursued by enemies and prosecutors. All this suggests a hefty group of supporters who continued to hope that a refurbished Olmert would run yet again, or were working to keep him out of prison.
Olmert's staff is accusing Shula Zaken of lying in order to minimize her own jail time. It is not a simple case, insofar Ms Zaken will have to convince a judge of overlooking what seems like perjury during her previous appearances in his courtroom. If the judge agrees to hear Zaken's new testimony, Olmert's attorneys say they will call a number of witnesses to testify that Zaken was a major recipient of ill-gotten money over the years she served Olmert.
Zaken's change of course may have earned a lessening of her own sentence, but may not impact the case of Ehud Olmert. For him, the judge's verdict sounded devastating. He not only ruled that Olmert was guilty of bribery, but that he had lied in various explanations of his behavior.
Included in the verdict are the actions of Olmert seeking payments for the sake of his younger brother. Yossi Olmert is an accomplished academic and foreign policy analyst with whom I enjoyed the give and take in several discussions. He aspired to his own political career, borrowed money for a campaign that was unsuccessful, and found himself in trouble with the kind of lenders who can be severe when payments are delayed. Yossi moved to the US, and received substantial support from donors who wanted something from Ehud.
The verdicts came in a document of 700 pages, which deals with nine defendants and includes some human interest about the judge's view of the personalities who testified, as well as the bottom lines of who is not guilty due to insufficient evidence, and who is guilty of one or another charge.
Commentators are predicting several years in prison for Olmert, which will come after the judge hears subsequent arguments about the punishment. Imprisonment, if that is Olmert's future, may be delayed to give him and other defendants an opportunity to appeal both their verdicts and sentences.
Also pending is the prosecutor's appeal against a not-guilty verdict in the case involving envelopes filled with cash. Israeli procedures allow the state to appeal a decision of not guilty.
Then there is the possibility of an indictment and trial for witness tampering.
I recently found myself in conversation with a senior judge, and cited the aphorism that justice delayed is justice denied. He disagreed, and argued that the Jewish tradition demands a pursuit of truth as the key to justice, even if it takes a long time to discover the truth.
If you've stayed with the story this far, keep reading about ongoing developments. It may take a few more months, or perhaps years to reach the end of Olmert's trials.
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