x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Olmert in court over corruption

Israel's former prime minister Ehud Olmert denies wrongdoing as proceedings start in his corruption trial.

The former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, centre right, inside a courtroom in Jerusalem yesterday.
The former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, centre right, inside a courtroom in Jerusalem yesterday.

TEL AVIV // Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, appeared in an Israeli court yesterday as the start of his legal battle against the corruption allegations that forced him out of office last year. The opening of court proceedings against Mr Olmert marked the first time that a sitting or retired Israeli prime minister had stood trial. Before walking into the courtroom in Jerusalem, Mr Olmert proclaimed his innocence and denied any wrongdoing. He told reporters: "I come here as a man innocent of any crime and I believe I will leave here as a man innocent of any crime."

He added that he aimed to clear his name after facing "an ordeal of slanders and investigations" over the past three years. The preliminary session yesterday was mostly procedural and ended with the judge ruling that the court would start hearing evidence in February after Mr Olmert's lawyers requested a postponement to review the case material. Legal experts have said that the trial is likely to last months.

Mr Olmert, a 63-year-old lawyer, was indicted last month on allegations including fraud, breach of trust, falsifying corporate documents and failure to report income. The investigations against him date back to his terms as mayor of Jerusalem from 1993 to 2003 and as minister of industry and trade from 2003 to 2006. He is accused of taking money from a US businessman, advancing the interests of clients of a former law partner and double-billing charities for expenses incurred on fund-raisers.

Legal experts say that if he is found guilty he could face up to five years in jail for each of the four charges. A US businessman has testified that he gave Mr Olmert envelopes stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mr Olmert says the money was used for electioneering, denying he benefited personally in return for advancing the businessman's interests. The allegations against Mr Olmert are the latest in a recent string of cases that have involved corruption and other charges against senior Israeli public officials. They include Avraham Hirschson, a former finance minister under Mr Olmert, who was convicted in June of embezzling about US$500,000 (Dh1.83m million). Moshe Katsav, a former Israeli president, is currently being tried on allegations of rape and other sexual offences.

Analysts have said that the trial is likely to end the three-decade-old career of Mr Olmert, who was elected prime minister in 2006 and then was forced to step down from the post in September 2008 amid the corruption allegations. He has remained out of the public eye ever since he was replaced following February's national elections by Benjamin Netanyahu, who currently leads a predominantly right-wing governing coalition.

Mr Olmert, first elected to Israel's parliament in 1973 at the age of 28, took over the premiership in January 2006 after the former premier Ariel Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke, and three months later led the centrist Kadima party to victory in parliamentary elections. Mr Olmert's government conducted more than a year of peace negotiations with the Palestinians following the US-brokered Annapolis summit in November 2007.

The talks, however, yielded few tangible results, and Mr Netanyahu's government currently refuses to restart peace negotiations based on any understandings Mr Olmert may have reached with the Palestinians. Mr Olmert has said in interviews in recent months that he had offered Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority, about 94 per cent of the Palestinian territories, along with an additional land swap and a safe-passage corridor from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. His offer had also called for the holy sites of Jerusalem's Old City to not be under anyone's sovereignty and instead be administered by a consortium of Saudis, Jordanians, Americans, Israelis and Palestinians. Regarding the sensitive issue of Palestinian refugees, Mr Olmert has said that he rejected the right of return for all of them and instead had offered that only a tiny number could return to their former towns and villages in what is now Israel as a "humanitarian gesture".

While the Palestinians have confirmed that they had received Mr Olmert's offer, the two sides did not have enough time to proceed because just months later, peace talks were cut off after Israel launched an onslaught in Gaza. vbekker@thenational.ae