Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced to six years in jail on Tuesday for taking bribes in a real estate deal, a crime the judge compared to treason.
The first criminal conviction of a former prime minister all but ended speculation that Olmert might return to political life.
He had denied any wrongdoing in the property deal, approved when he served as Yerushalayim’s mayor, that led to
the construction of the hilltop Holyland apartment towers, a hulking stone complex 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 1 million shekels ($289,500).
Rozen found Olmert guilty on March 31 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 real estate deal.
Olmert, the judge said, devoted most of his time to “praise-worthy” public service — but “also lined his own pockets.”
Rozen ordered Olmert, 68, to report to prison on Sept. 1, effectively giving his lawyers time to take the case to a higher court and request that he remain free until it rules. Other former government officials, developers and businesspeople who were also sentenced, received similar instructions.
Known as one of the country’s most gregarious politicians, Olmert sat mostly stony-faced during the court session, and made no comment afterwards.
The sentencing elicited the comment from various quarters that it was “a sad day” for the country, though there was some difference of opinion as to what constituted the sadness.
President Shimon Peres sent a message from Norway, where he is visiting, to say it was a sad day for him personally.
Labor party head MK Yitzchak Herzog said that “this is a sad day for those who knew Olmert personally over the years…[but] the sentence handed down proves that Israel has an independent justice system, and the same law applies to the prime minister and to ordinary citizens. All are equal before the law.”
Similar sentiments were voiced by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, and Internal Security Minister Yitzchak Aharonovich.
But Olmert and his lawyers expressed their sadness from a very different perspective, that of an innocent man being punished.
Less than an hour before the sentencing, Olmert released a statement saying: “This is a sad day, on which a severe and unjust verdict is to be handed down to an innocent man.”
“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,” Olmert lawyer Eli Zohar told reporters.
Olmert’s spokesman, Amir Dan, said that the former prime minister planned to appeal the sentence in the Supreme Court in the hopes that “the real picture will emerge and the verdict will change completely.”
Senior Israeli commentator Nahum Barnea called attention to another type of sadness, pertaining to the reactions of some to Olmert’s downfall.
“The reading of the verdict, a month and a half ago, was accompanied by an unusual outburst of hatred,” unusual even by the norms of Israeli political life.
“Retired legal experts and different commentators filled the media with curses against the convicted felon and words of praise for themselves,” Barnea wrote.
While Barnea himself had been quite critical of Olmert over the years, he called for a balanced view of the man in a difficult hour.
“I called on him to step down twice: Following the Lebanon War and in the midst of the Talansky testimony. But only people ruled by their personal instincts are blind to the … sincere effort to reach an agreement with the Palestinians … and the governmentefficient work during his term, the readiness to make decisions.”
No one should rejoice over the downfall of Ehud Olmert, he said.
But with the likelihood that the former prime minister will go to prison, the issue of how to handle his incarceration was already being taken up.
Israel Prisons Commissioner Aharon Franco said his agency has been discussing the matter for weeks, ever since a guilty verdict became a possibility.
“We are speaking with all of the relevant bodies in order to come up with the best possible way to do this safely,” Franco said Tuesday adding that “this is an exceptional case.”
Franco said that like all incoming convicts, Olmert will go through an intake exam when he reports to the penitentiary, during which authorities will check the different relevant threats he poses, including the chances he could pose a threat to himself or other inmates, whether he is an escape risk, and the particular privacy needs the inmate has.
In the case of Olmert, prison officials also noted a security concern — as a former Prime Minister he was for years privy to state secrets of the highest confidentiality and his safety must be assured in coordination with the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).