JERUSALEM — Ehud Olmert was found guilty Tuesday on one charge of corruption but cleared on two more serious charges in Israel’s first criminal trial of a former prime minister.
Olmert appeared openly pleased with the verdict. Upon leaving the courtroom he smiled wide and told reporters, “There is justice in Jerusalem.”
Olmert, 66, likely expected a different verdict. Israeli newspapers widely predicted that he would be found guilty of all three charges. He was accused of accepting some $150,000 in cash-stuffed envelopes from American businessman Morris Talansky and of pocketing more than $92,000 by double-billing charities on trips overseas.
The court convicted him only on a charge of granting illegal favors to his friend, Talansky, while serving as minister of trade and industry before becoming prime minister in 2006. According to Israeli law, Olmert could be sentenced to up to three years in prison, although a report by the Haaretz newspaper found that in similar cases judges had issued lighter sentences consisting of several months of community service.
“There was no corruption, I received no money, there were no cash envelopes, there was nothing from all of these things they tried to attribute to me,” Olmert said. “It was all false.”
He acknowledged his conviction on the third set of allegations, but he said the judgment described his behavior as “procedural misconduct.”
Politicians from Olmert’s former political party, Kadima, on Tuesday were already calling for his return to politics. Kadima parliamentarian Yuval Zellner said Israel had lost one of its best leaders because of “recklessness and rashly penned charges,” adding that party members would happily welcome Olmert back into its faction in the Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset.
Olmert himself fueled speculation that he was planning a political comeback by telling reporters Tuesday morning, “This will not be the last time you hear from me in the next few days.”
Lawmakers from other parties, however, were quick to point out that Olmert had been found guilty on one serious charge.
“The fact that Olmert was found guilty of breach of trust is extremely severe, and the verdict should spell the end of his political career,” said lawmaker Zehava Galon of the left-wing Meretz faction.
Olmert is still battling a separate case involving corruption charges stemming from the construction of a luxury apartment complex that juts out of a West Jerusalem hilltop. Prosecutors claim that millions of dollars were paid to Olmert while he served as mayor of Jerusalem to approve the plans for the complex known as Holyland.
Speculation over Olmert’s guilt in the Holyland case, and others, began as early as 2007. In September 2008, Olmert announced that he would resign from the prime minister’s office.
His announcement came amid a slew of indictments against prominent Israeli public figures. Most recently, in December 2011, former Israeli President Moshe Katsav began serving a seven-year prison term for rape and sexual harassment. Other cases included Avraham Hirschon, a former finance minister, who in June 2009 began serving a five-year sentence for financial offenses, and Tzachi Hanegbi, who was stripped of his parliamentary seat in July 2010 after being convicted of “moral turpitude” relating to political appointments he made.
Israeli newspapers have been filled with stories of soul-searching amid the public following the accusations against public figures. In last year’s International Corruption Perceptions Index, compiled by the watchdog group Transparency International, Israel fell to its lowest ranking to date, placing 24th out of the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a grouping of the world’s richest nations.
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.