Tuesday’s ruling by the Jerusalem District Court that found former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, guilty of breach of trust on one charge but not guilty of two more serious corruption charges is being seen in Israel as a severe embarrassment for the state prosecution.
Mr Olmert was found guilty of acting in “a severe conflict of interests” during his term as minister for trade and industry, when he approved publicly funded investments in companies that were clients of his old friend and former partner Uri Messer.
Despite his conviction for a felony that could carry imprisonment, Mr Olmert and his supporters celebrated the ruling. They stressed the fact that the two main charges, receiving funds illegally from businessman Moshe Talansky and from the Rishon Tours travel agency, had been dropped. It was following Talansky’s initial testimony in 2008 that he was forced to resign from the prime minster’s office.
“After over four years, the judicial procedure is over,” said Mr Olmert after the sentence had been read out. “I want to remind you that, four years ago, envelopes of money starred in the Israeli media: there were no envelopes of money.”
The judges decided to give Mr Olmert the benefit of the doubt in the Rishon Tours case and accept that he was not aware of the way philanthropic organisations were “double-billed” for his flights and a slush fund accrued for private travel for the Olmert family.
Regarding the charges of illegal funds received from Talansky, the judges found that, while Mr Olmert had been in a conflict of interest, the circumstances were insufficient on which to base a criminal conviction.
His chief of staff and long-time secretary, Shula Zaken, who refused to give evidence, was found guilty of illegally receiving funds.
Mr Olmert’s acquittal of the two most serious charges is a huge embarrassment for the state prosecutor’s office. It is especially damaging for the state prosecutor, Moshe Lador, who took personal responsibility for the case.
The prosecutor’s team was confidently predicting convictions on the main charges up to Tuesday morning. One of the leading attorneys said last weekend that “Olmert will certainly be convicted; the case against him is too strong for it to be otherwise.”
The fact that he was acquitted of the major charges for which he was forced to resign will certainly come up in the arguments before the sentencing next month, and could well influence the judges in Mr Olmert’s favour.
On the other hand, he still has to face the potentially much more serious charges in the Holyland building affair. In that case, only last week a state witness testified that he had transferred nearly £800,000 to Mr Olmert while he was serving as Mayor of Jerusalem. In return for the money, the former mayor is alleged to have urged city officials to approve building rights for the lucrative Holyland project in Jerusalem.