Profile: Ehud Olmert

Once described as Israel’s finest politician, former prime minister was sentenced for breaching the public’s trust.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Olmert
Even after his release on July 2, 2017, Olmert could still face new criminal charges [Reuters]

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

The former Israeli prime minister was convicted in 2014 on charges of accepting bribes to promote a real-estate project in Jerusalem and obstructing justice.

The charges pertained to a period when he was mayor of Jerusalem and trade minister before he became premier in 2006. 

Israeli ex-PM Olmert convicted of corruption

Olmert was a longtime fixture in Israel’s hawkish right wing when he began taking a dramatically more conciliatory line toward the Palestinians more than a decade ago.

He played a leading role in Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and became prime minister in January 2006 after then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke. He resigned amid a corruption scandal that clouded his administration. 

A gifted orator, Olmert broke a series of taboos while in office – warning that Israel could become like apartheid South Africa if it continued its occupation of the Palestinians and expressing readiness to relinquish parts of the holy city of Jerusalem under a peace deal.

Even after his release on July 2, 2017, a the age of 71, Olmert could still face new criminal charges, though some Israeli media reported that the probe is expected to be dropped.

Last month, the state attorney’s office instructed police to investigate suspicions that Olmert had smuggled a chapter of a book he was writing out of prison, an act that would constitute a felony owing to the “secretive” content, the justice ministry said.

Police had raided the office of the Yediot Aharonot publisher and seized Olmert’s manuscript as well as other materials out of fears that their dissemination – before the mandatory censorship they would be subject to – could cause “severe security damage”, the ministry said.

The investigation was ongoing, with the state attorney’s office expected to announce in the coming days whether it would seek to press charges against Olmert over his conduct around the book.

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Olmert’s original 27-month prison term comprised 18 months for taking bribes in the early 2000s in connection with the construction of Jerusalem’s massive Holyland residential complex, eight months for a separate case of fraud and corruption, and another month for obstructing justice.

In a video message released just before he began his sentence, Olmert maintained his innocence.

“You can imagine how painful and strange this change is to me, my family, loved ones and supporters,” said Olmert, looking haggard and downcast. “I totally deny all the bribe charges attributed to me.”

He added that “over the course of my extensive career I also made mistakes, though none of them were criminal by nature in my opinion. I’m paying a dear price for some of them today, perhaps too dear.

“With a very heavy heart, I’m accepting my sentence today. Nobody is above the law.”

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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Olmert also entered into Turkish-mediated talks with longtime 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 Benjamin 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”.

Source: News Agencies