Israeli court convicts former Prime Minister Olmert in high-profile bribery trial

The Associated Press

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hugs a friend before a hearing at Tel Aviv's District Court. Monday, March 31, 2014. The court handed down the verdict in the wide-ranging Jerusalem real estate scandal case related to Olmert’s activities before becoming prime minister in 2006. A total of 13 government officials, developers and other businesspeople were charged in three separate schemes. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty, Pool)

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By ARON HELLER, Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli court on Monday convicted former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a wide-ranging bribery case, a verdict that could send him to prison and that crushed his hopes for a political comeback.

The development seals the most serious legal battle the 68-year-old Olmert has waged since he was forced to step down as prime minister in 2009 amid a flurry of corruption allegations.

It also capped a political career that saw Olmert transform himself from a sharp-tongued backbencher in the hard-line Likud Party into a global statesman whose push for peace with the Palestinians came crashing down due to his legal troubles.

On Monday, the Tel Aviv district court handed down its decision in a Jerusalem real estate scandal case related to Olmert's activities before he become prime minister in 2006.

A total of 13 government officials, developers and other businesspeople were charged in three separate schemes related to the Holyland housing development in Jerusalem, in what was regarded as perhaps the largest corruption scandal ever exposed in Israel.

Sentencing is set for April 28. Legal experts say the conviction will almost certainly entail prison time for Olmert.

According to the original 2012 indictment, 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 the developers tax breaks and other benefits.

Olmert was charged for acts committed while he was mayor of Jerusalem and minister of industry and trade. He was accused of taking bribes to push the project forward.

The conviction puts a dramatic end to Olmert's long political career, which was dogged by corruption allegations but which — until Monday — rarely stuck.

Without a natural rival to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Olmert was often mentioned as a potential center-left alternative, should he survive his legal woes.

Olmert faces a maximum prison term of seven years. Under Israeli law, he would have to wait at least seven years after serving his sentence to run for office. Even if he somehow wins an appeal, he has become so tainted that a comeback is virtually impossible, said Tamir Sheafer, a professor of political science at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

"He had to come out as pure as snow to carry on," Sheafer said.

Speaking during a state visit to Austria, Israeli President Shimon Peres said the verdict marked "a sad day for my country."

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. 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.

At the center of Monday's case was the Holyland housing development, a hulking hilltop project Jerusalem residents long suspected was tainted by corruption. The case broke in 2010 when businessman Shmuel Dechner who was involved in the project turned state's witness.

Judge David Rozen convicted Olmert of seeking more than $100,000, through a middleman, from Holyland developers to help out his brother, Yossi, who fled Israel because of financial problems. The judge also said Dechner contributed millions over the years to Olmert political campaigns and funneled money to him through his longtime aide Shula Zaken.

Inside the cramped courtroom on Monday, Rozen rejected Olmert's assertion that he was unaware of the money transfers. Reading from a 700-page verdict, he said Dechner's testimony was trustworthy and that Olmert had lied to the court.