Fall from grace: Former Israeli PM sentenced to six years in prison

Ehud Olmert was sent to prison for his role in a bribery case, in what many saw as triumph of Israel's justice system. He's the first former Israeli prime minister to go to prison.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced on Tuesday to six years in prison for his role in a wide-ranging bribery case, capping a stunning fall from grace for one of the most powerful men in the country and marking the climax in a lengthy campaign against corruption in Israeli public life.

With the sentencing, Olmert became the first former Israel prime minister to be sent to prison. He joins a former Israeli president, Cabinet minister and several lawmakers who have all served time in recent years.

The cases have sparked shame in the country's elected officials but also pride in its justice system, proving that no one in Israel is above the law.

Judge David Rozen, a Tel Aviv district court judge, delivered the punishment in the Jerusalem real estate scandal case, which was related to Olmert's activities before he become prime minister in 2006. Tuesday's sentencing followed a guilty verdict that was handed down by the same court in March.

"A public servant who accepts bribes is akin to a traitor," Judge David Rozen read in court.

"This is a man who was on top of the world. He served as prime minister, the most important position, and from there he reached the position of a man convicted of criminal offenses," Rozen added, referring to Olmert.

Rozen ordered Olmert and a series of other former government officials, developers and businesspeople who were also sentenced to appear before the prison service on Sept. 1. Olmert was also fined $290,000.

The 68-year-old Olmert, who stood stoically in the courtroom in a navy blue shirt, insisted he is innocent and never took a bribe.

His spokesman Amir Dan called it a "sad day" in which an "unjust verdict" was delivered against an innocent man. He said Olmert would appeal both the verdict and the sentence to Israel's Supreme Court.

"It is a very serious sentence and we put our faith in the Supreme Court," Dan said outside the courtroom.

Should Olmert end up in prison, special arrangements would likely have to be made to accommodate such a senior official who still enjoys round-the-clock security.

According to the verdict, millions of dollars illegally changed hands to promote a series of real estate projects, including a controversial housing development in Jerusalem that required a radical change in zoning laws and earned developers tax breaks and other benefits.

At the time, Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem and was accused of taking bribes to push the project forward. He was forced to resign as prime minister in 2009 amid a flurry of corruption allegations.

Olmert was a longtime fixture in Israel's hard-line right wing when he began taking a more moderate line toward the Palestinians a decade ago, as deputy prime minister. He also played a leading role in Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

He 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 parliamentary elections on a platform of pushing further peace moves with the Palestinians.

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 the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier who was captured by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid and an inconclusive war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. Both incidents occurred shortly after he took office. Olmert also launched a military invasion of the Gaza Strip in late 2008 that drew heavy international criticism.

But it was the corruption allegations that accompanied much of his political career and ultimately proved his undoing. He stepped down to face various charges from his time as mayor and later Cabinet minister.

Olmert has already faced a trial on separate charges of accepting illicit funds from an American supporter and double-billing Jewish groups for trips abroad. In that case, he was cleared in 2012 of the most serious charges but convicted on a lesser count of breach of trust for steering jobs and contracts to clients of business partners and got a suspended one-year sentence.

That verdict was seen as a moral victory, and Olmert had signaled an intention to return to politics if he could beat the charges against him in the real estate scandal. He had been seen as one of the few politicians capable of mounting a challenge as a centrist alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the center of the case was the Holyland housing development, a hulking hilltop project that Jerusalem residents long suspected was tainted by corruption.

The case broke in 2010 on the strength of a businessman, Shmuel Dechner, who was involved in the project and turned state's witness. Dechner died last year from an illness.

The indictment against Olmert laid out one of the largest corruption scandals ever exposed in Israel. It accused Olmert of seeking money, through a middleman, from Holyland developers to help out his brother, Yossi, who fled Israel because of financial problems. According to the indictment, Yossi Olmert received about $100,000.

Ehud Olmert was also accused of asking the middleman to help out city engineer Uri Sheetrit, who also had money woes. Sheetrit later dropped his opposition to the broad expansion of the Holyland complex, which burgeoned from a small development into a massive, high-rise project that sticks out from its low-rise neighbors. According to the indictment, Sheetrit received hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.

Among those also sentenced on Tuesday was Sheetrit, who was sent to prison for seven years. Others were sentenced to terms of between three to five years.

Across the political spectrum, officials expressed grief over Olmert plight while also faith in the country's court system. President Shimon Peres said it was a sad day for him personally.

Liat Ben-Ari, a state prosecutor, said Tuesday's sentencing must be read and internalized by all.

"Those who give bribes and those who take bribes are corrupt and those who are corrupt, their fate is the same one: a long term in prison, a return of the corrupt money to the state and a mark of turpitude," she said. "No one is above the law and those who commit crimes will be punished."


Follow Heller on Twitter @aronhellerap

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