As his trial opens, Olmert still hopes to return to public life

By Anshel Pfeffer, October 1, 2009
The former premier on his way into court, on charges of corruption

The former premier on his way into court, on charges of corruption

Last Friday, Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert set off on a road that could take him to prison, or back to national leadership.

“I have come here as an innocent man,” he told the assembled media on the first day of his trial in Jerusalem, “and I believe that I will leave without any charge.”

Although Mr Olmert — the first former Israeli PM to stand trial — would not signal his plans for after the trial, his close friends have no doubt.

“Ehud believes he is innocent,” said one of them, “and once that is finally proven, no -one will be able to stop him from returning. When the alternatives are Bibi and Barak, the public will be eager for a responsible and experienced leader.”

On the eve of his trial, Mr Olmert gave an interview to the BBC, detailing the offers he made to the Palestinians as prime minister. Two months ago he wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post along similar lines, both signs that he still sees himself a statesman.

Charged with fraudulent receipt of goods, false registration of corporate documents, fraud, breach of trust, and tax evasion in three separate corruption investigations, Mr Olmert is sparing no costs. His defence team is headed by one of Israel’s leading “white collar case” attorneys, Eli Zohar, and includes five of Israel’s most experienced and expensive lawyers, a press adviser and private investigators.

In a case that will probably last more than two years, the cost of such a team would normally exceed $1 million, though due to the prominence of the accused, and the fact that at least some of the lawyers are personal friends of his, it is possible he will be charged a bit less.

Friday’s hearing was mainly procedural and dealt with the trial’s schedule. The evidentiary hearings are now set to start in February, when the real work will begin.

The charges against Mr Olmert in the Rishon Tours double-billing scandal, the “Talansky cash envelopes” affair and the “investment centre” case are such that, if found guilty, he could be sent to prison.

It is not clear yet how the legal system would deal with a situation in which a former prime minister, a man who has all Israel’s strategic secrets in his head and is protected for life by General Security Service bodyguards, could possibly sit in prison, which may lead to the possibility of a plea bargain. But for now neither side seems willing to contemplate such a deal.

For Attorney General Meni Mazuz and State Prosecutor Moshe Lador, any sign that they are willing to discuss a deal would be an admission that their case is not strong enough. If so, why did they rush to indict a serving premier, ultimately imposing elections on the country?

Nor does Mr Olmert want to consider a bargain at this stage. Even if a plea bargain would keep him out of prison, it would mean that he would have to give up any plan of ever returning to public life.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010