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Profile: Ehud Olmert
Once described as Israel's finest politician, former prime minister is sentenced for breaching the public's trust.
Last Modified: 24 Sep 2012 22:30
The light sentence against the former prime minister could pave the way for his political comeback [AFP]

Ehud Olmert was once described as the finest politician Israel had ever produced, but like many of his predecessors, he has seen he reputation dragged through the mud by a succession of fraud scandals.

On September 24, 2012, a Jerusalem court handed the former Israeli prime minister a suspended sentence and an $19,000 fine, two months after he was convicted of breach of trust in a closely-watched corruption case that saw him cleared on two other charges.

"I walk out of here with my head held high," he told reporters.

But the prosecution process has been a humiliation for the 66-year-old who was premier for three years starting in 2006, after his mentor Ariel Sharon lapsed into a coma from which he has never emerged.

Olmert has described the fraud allegations against him as "a brutal, ruthless witch-hunt, the likes of which have never before been seen in Israel".

The country's political leadership, however, has a long history of brushes with the law. Sharon himself was enmeshed in a corruption scandal when he suffered his massive stroke.

Earlier this year, disgraced former president Moshe Katsav began a seven-year jail sentence after being convicted on two counts of rape and other sexual offences.

By avoiding a stiffer penalty in his most recent sentencing, Olmert is now eligible to run for parliament, though he remains barred from serving as a cabinet minister while he faces another corruption trial.

Olmert has not said whether he wants to seek office again, but confidants say he is certainly considering it.

"I sense that many today among us today need to see Olmert come back," Ronnie Bar-On, a political ally of the former premier, told Israel's Channel 2 TV.

"It is now very clear to everyone that Prime Minister Olmert was removed from office against his will and unjustifiably so."

In the coming months, Olmert will remain preoccupied with a separate trial for his alleged role in a Jerusalem property bribery case.

Lawyer from Haifa

Olmert was born near Haifa on September 30, 1945, during the British Mandate and is a lawyer.

In the early 1970s he surprised many right-wing friends by marrying left-leaning artist Aliza, who brought up their four children with equally liberal views.

He was first elected to the Knesset at the age of 28, and went on to work in the foreign affairs and security committees.

He got his first taste of government from 1988 to 1990, when he served as a minister-without-portfolio for minority issues in Yitzhak Shamir’s national unity government.

Olmert was also health minister in the Likud government that followed and held that position for two years.

In 1993, Olmert became mayor of Jerusalem, beating the long-standing incumbent Teddy Kollek.

He served two full terms in the post, and oversaw changes to the city’s education and transport systems, before quitting to become deputy prime minister.

'Best politician of them all'

Before 2006, Olmert won acknowledgement as a key strategist behind many of Sharon's boldest moves, including the 2005 pull-out of settlers from the Gaza Strip and the subsequent decision to quit the right-wing Likud party and form the centrist Kadima.

With Sharon incapacitated, it was Olmert who led Kadima to victory in March 2006 on a platform of dismantling dozens of settlements and withdrawing troops from parts of the West Bank.

That year, Time magazine called Olmert "the 12th Israeli to serve as prime minister and probably the best politician of them all".

But that turned out to be his high-water mark, with his West Bank plan shelved in the wake of the blistering 2006 war against Lebanon, which left more than 1,200 dead, most of them civilians, and 160 in Israel, mostly soldiers.

Olmert clung to power despite a damning report on his handling of the 34-day conflict, which slammed his government for failing to halt Hezbollah rocket fire and retrieve two captured soldiers.

Gaza offensive

Olmert served in the military as an officer in a combat infantry unit, but after being injured in the leg and arm, he completed his service in 1971 as a correspondent for an army journal.

As a result he lacked the illustrious military background of some of his predecessors.

Although he rejected peace talks for decades, Olmert underwent a late-career conversion, reviving negotiations with Israel's foes, as well as backing the unilateral pullout of troops and settlers from Palestinian territory.

He and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas met several times following the relaunch of peace talks in November 2007 after a seven-year hiatus, until they were halted just over a year later at the start of Israel's devastating 22-day offensive on Gaza.

Olmert also entered into Turkish-mediated talks with long-time foe Syria in May 2008 after an earlier round of indirect negotiations broke down in 2000 over the issue of the occupied Golan Heights.

Olmert resigned from the premiership after police recommended that he be indicted in several other cases of fraud, all relating to a period before he became prime minister.

The stream of allegations dogged Olmert throughout much of his premiership. He resigned as prime minister in September 2008 but remained in office until March 2009, when Binyamin Netanyahu was sworn in.

Olmert endured long periods of dismal single-digit approval ratings, the worst to blight a sitting premier, and himself once said he was "a very unpopular prime minister".

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Source:
Agencies
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