FORMER Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced to six years in jail yesterday for taking bribes in a property deal – a crime which the judge said was akin to treason.
The first criminal conviction of an ex-Israeli premier has all but ended speculation that Olmert might return to political life.
The centrist politician, credited internationally with working towards a peace settlement with the Palestinians, had denied any wrongdoing in the deal.
It was approved when he served as Jerusalem’s mayor and led to the construction of the hilltop Holyland apartment towers, widely seen as one of the city’s worst eyesores.
“A public servant who takes bribes is akin to a traitor,” said Judge David Rozen in the Tel Aviv District Court, as he handed down a six-year prison term sought by prosecutors and fined Olmert one million shekels (£170,000).
Judge Rozen found Olmert guilty on 31 March of two bribery charges, saying the former prime minister had accepted 500,000 shekels from developers of the Holyland project and 60,000 shekels in a separate property deal.
Olmert, the judge said, devoted most of his time to “praiseworthy” public service – but “also lined his own pockets”.
He added: “The accused served as the prime minister of Israel. From this high and honourable post, he reached the position of having been convicted of the most despicable and grave crimes.”
Judge Rozen ordered Olmert, 68, to report to prison on 1 September, effectively giving his lawyers time to take the case to a higher court and request he remain free until it decides.
Known as one of the country’s most gregarious politicians, Olmert sat largely stony-faced during the court session, and made no comment afterwards.
Olmert’s lawyer, Eli Zohar, said: “He did not take a bribe. He did not receive a bribe. He sees himself as innocent, and it is with those feelings that he will be going to the Supreme Court to appeal.”
Two years ago, Olmert was acquitted of most of the major charges brought against him in separate cases involving his links to a United States businessman.
Those corruption allegations forced Olmert’s resignation as prime minister in 2008, and his acquittal had appeared to position him for a possible political comeback.
Olmert has made several criticisms of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies toward the Palestinians, fuelling talk about his future political ambitions.
But the judge said Olmert’s crimes entailed “moral turpitude”, which under Israeli law would preclude him from running for public office for seven years after finishing his jail term.
A lawyer by profession, Olmert began his political career in the 1970s as a politician who targeted organised crime in Israel.
He was mayor of Jerusalem from 1993 to 2003 and prime minister from 2006-9, staying in office in a caretaker capacity until after an election that brought right-winger Mr Netanyahu to power.
As Israel’s leader, Olmert waged war against militants in Lebanon in 2006 and the Gaza Strip in 2008.
He claimed significant progress in talks with the Palestinians aimed at securing a final peace deal, offering an Israeli withdrawal from much of the occupied West Bank. But no agreement was reached.
After a three-year break, US-brokered negotiations resumed in July, but they were frozen last month by Mr Netanyahu after president Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestine Liberation Organisation signed a reconciliation deal with Hamas, an Islamist group that advocates Israel’s destruction.