(JTA) — Not unusually for a head of state, Ehud Olmert hankered for a legacy, and the contours of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement may yet bear his mark.
But another first attached to Olmert may be one both he and his nation probably could do without: the first Israeli prime minister to spend years fighting charges of corruption and then spend his golden years behind bars.
Israel’s attorney general on Sunday indicted Olmert on three charges that could land him in jail.
Olmert was charged with defrauding the government and overseas Jewish groups for about $90,000 by double- and sometimes triple-billing travel charges; with accepting up to $600,000 in bribes from a New York businessman, Morris Talansky; and for impropriety in maintaining a relationship with a business partner while he was minister of trade and industry.
All of the charges relate to allegations predating his 2006-09 term as prime minister.
Olmert’s lawyers say they will vigorously contest the charges, noting that the former Israeli leader already had refused a pre-indictment hearing that might have resulted in some sort of a plea deal.
“We have no doubt that when it gets to court we will have a real opportunity to mount a defense, which we haven’t had until now,” Olmert spokesman Amir Dan told JTA last month. “Unlike the complaints that led to the resignation of the prime minister, the court can look at things objectively. And Olmert intends to defend his innocence.”
If convicted, the 64-year-old Olmert could spend a long time in prison. He might find some familiar faces there: Abraham Hirchson, who served as finance minister under Olmert, entered prison Tuesday for a conviction on embezzlement and fraud. And Shlomo Benizri, a Shas Party member who served as health minister and labor and social welfare minister in different governments, started a four-year prison term the same day for taking bribes.
Olmert was catapulted into the premiership by Ariel Sharon’s debilitating stroke, but after a decisive election victory in April 2006, the longtime Jerusalem mayor appeared poised to lead Israel into a new era of peace and security — even if it had to be accomplished through unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank.
Earlier in his career, Olmert was better known as a dealmaker. Never popular with his party’s rank and file, he had one-on-one relationships with the funders, movers and shakers who could seal the coalitions that kept his former party, Likud, in power.
Olmert was sharp-elbowed and acerbic. He questioned the Judaism of Shimon Peres when Peres was fighting to keep his job as prime minister in 1996. In the 1993 Jerusalem municipal elections, Olmert mocked the age of his rival, legendary mayor Teddy Kollek.
Yet the very qualities that made him unpopular advanced his party’s fortunes. Whatever price Olmert paid in personal popularity for his attack-dog reputation, the other side always emerged a little more wounded. Peres lost the elections to Benjamin Netanyahu, and Olmert wrested City Hall from Kollek.
In his 10 years as mayor, Olmert at times seemed more focused with making it on the national stage. Critics said his dogged plans for a light rail system were a white elephant aimed at enhancing his reputation as a builder. Yet six years after Olmert left City Hall, the plan is going ahead.
All the while, Olmert was never far from scandal. He faced allegations that he wiretapped Labor Party headquarters in the 1988 elections. Detractors charged that he froze out donors to Jerusalem projects who had not backed his election.
Yet Olmert always survived. And once he became prime minister — with Kadima, the centrist party founded by Sharon — Olmert was charged with hopes of finally forging a deal with the Palestinians.
But the persistence of the investigations against him, along with his perceived failures in Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, sapped Olmert’s popularity early on and impaired his ability to govern.
During his term, police investigators pursued allegations that Olmert changed the terms of a contract to purchase shares of Bank Leumi in order to help a friend, that he purchased an apartment on Jerusalem’s Cremieux Street at a discount in exchange for favors, and that he accepted bribes in exchange for assisting a Netanya hospital — in addition to the investigations that resulted in indictments this week.
Dogged by police probes, Olmert announced his resignation in the summer of 2008. He stayed on as acting prime minister for longer than many had foreseen. His successor as Kadima leader, Tzipi Livni, was unable to form a new government, forcing Israel to have general elections in February. While Olmert was a lame duck, the country found itself in another war, against Hamas in Gaza in January of this year.
Olmert finally stepped down on March 31, when Netanyahu’s coalition government was sworn in.
While the Bank Leumi, Cremieux Street and Netanya hospital investigations were closed this summer without indictments, Olmert was unable to shake the three cases for which he was indicted Sunday.
Alexander Bligh, chairman of the political science department at the College of Judea and Samaria, and currently a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame, said he does not foresee Olmert’s indictment to influence Israel’s current political scene.
“Mr. Olmert has been out of politics; he’s a private citizen,” Bligh said.
Nor does Bligh think the indictments will weaken public confidence in Israel’s government.
“This is not something that anyone in a democratic country would like to see, that one of its leaders is standing trial on corruption charges,” Bligh said.
However, the fact that an individual as high ranking as a former prime minister is not infallible, he stressed, is “testimony to the strength of Israel’s democracy.”