JERUSALEM – Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was indicted on corruption charges Sunday, becoming the first Israeli premier to go on trial and highlighting a series of cases that have shaken the public’s faith in the political system.
The charges likely end the three-decade career of a man who just three years ago seemed poised to lead his nation to a bold withdrawal from the West Bank and an aggressive push for peace with the Palestinians.
Olmert, who was forced to step down because of the case, was accused of illegally accepting funds from an American backer, double-billing for official trips abroad and pocketing the difference, concealing funds from a government watchdog and cronyism. All of the alleged crimes took place before Olmert was elected prime minister in 2006.
Olmert, 63, issued a statement professing his innocence. “Olmert is convinced that in court he will be able to prove his innocence once and for all,” said a spokesman, Amir Dan.
The formal charges in the indictment include fraud and breach of trust. The Justice Ministry did not say when the trial would begin or what penalties Olmert could face. But Moshe Negbi, a leading legal commentator, said the fraud charge alone could carry a prison term of up to five years.
A rumoured political comeback would be highly unlikely unless he is cleared. “In the immediate future it doesn’t seem possible, but it all depends on the court,” Negbi said.
Olmert, a lawyer by training, has repeatedly been linked to corruption scandals throughout a three-decade career that included a lengthy stint as Jerusalem mayor and a series of senior Cabinet posts. But until Sunday, he had never been charged. He is the first prime minister, sitting or retired, to be charged with a crime.
The indictment follows a string of high-profile trials that have soured an already cynical public toward the nation’s leadership.
Olmert’s former finance minister was sentenced to five years for embezzlement in June, and another member of his Cabinet was sentenced to four years for taking bribes. Israel’s former ceremonial president, Moshe Katsav, is being tried on rape and sexual harassment charges, and a longtime Olmert aide has been charged with illegal wiretapping, fraud and breach of trust.
The most damaging allegations against Olmert accused him of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from an American businessman during trips abroad.
The businessman, Moshe Talansky, testified last year that he delivered the cash in envelopes and painted Olmert as a greedy politician who enjoyed first-class travel, fancy hotels and expensive cigars. The testimony helped turn public opinion against Olmert and played a large part in forcing him from office.
The indictment said Olmert used his connections to help Talansky’s business, but did not charge Olmert with accepting bribes.
In another case, Olmert was charged with double-billing non-profit organizations and the government for trips he took abroad and then using the extra money to pay for private trips for his family.
Olmert became prime minister in January 2006 after then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke. He subsequently led their newly formed Kadima Party to victory in a parliamentary election.
On the campaign trail, Olmert promised an aggressive push for peace with the Palestinians, and said in the absence of a deal, he would unilaterally withdraw from large parts of the occupied West Bank.
A gifted orator, Olmert crossed a series of taboos while in office – warning that Israel could become like apartheid South Africa if it continued its occupation of the Palestinians and expressing readiness to relinquish control of parts of the holy city of Jerusalem as part of a peace deal. Olmert led his government to the Annapolis peace conference in November 2007 – launching more than a year of ambitious, but unsuccessful peace talks with the Palestinians.
Despite his ambitious agenda, Olmert’s term was clouded by an inconclusive war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon that took place just over a month after he took office. A series of corruption investigations – most of which were dismissed – also followed him.
The politically weakened Olmert announced his resignation last fall and stepped down in March after Benjamin Netanyahu won a parliamentary election. Olmert is currently out of politics and battling prostate cancer, but is widely rumoured to be plotting a comeback.
Resounding elections setbacks have not kept Israeli politicians down for long. Both Netanyahu Defence Minister Ehud Barak both rebounded quickly from landslide losses at the polls.
Olmert’s spokesman said his priority is to focus on his legal battle. “Once this is over and he has proved he is innocent, then he will consider what to do next. All options are open,” he said.