The Jerusalem District Court on Thursday decided to compromise between the conflicting requests of the state and the defense in the trial of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, by postponing the trial for a month and declaring that witness testimony on the Rishon Tours affair will be heard first.
On Tuesday, without any warning either to the defense or the prosecution, Jerusalem District Attorney Eli Abarbanel, the lead prosecutor in the trial, asked the court to change the order of hearings, a week after submitting a list of close to 80 witnesses who were to testify about the Talansky and Investment Center affairs.
The reason for the request became clearer the following day, when the police announced they were investigating new corruption allegations involving real estate projects in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Upper Galilee.
According to the details that have been released for publication, one of the affairs involves the Holyland residential project in Jerusalem’s Malha neighborhood, which was approved for building during the time Ehud Olmert was mayor.
The other two projects, a large residential complex in south Tel Aviv and a recreation and tourist complex near Kibbutz Manara in the Galilee panhandle, were under discussion while Olmert was minister of industry, trade and labor and was also, for a while, in charge of the Israel Lands Administration.
During Thursday’s hearing, Abarbanel told the court that the Investment Center, which was under the aegis of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor while Olmert was minister, was deeply involved in some of the projects currently under investigation.
One of the charges against Olmert involves allegations that he gave special treatment to clients of his then-close friend, attorney Uri Messer, who applied for grants from the Investment Center. Messer has not been charged in this matter. However, he is currently under arrest in connection with the new investigation, suspected of accepting bribes and serving as an intermediary for transferring bribe money to a senior public figure whose name has not yet been disclosed.
Olmert’s attorney, Eli Zohar, referred to the possibility that his client was indeed involved in the new alleged corruption affair. He told reporters before the hearing began that “I, along with all of you, have already experienced a number of affairs like this one that began with loud trumpets and expired later on in a weak whisper. I hope and believe that this affair, too, which began with almost irrational hoopla, will end in the same way.”
Abarbanel also made it clear that key figures in the trial of Olmert and his close aide, Shula Zaken, may be involved in one way or another in the new investigation.
In asking the court to switch the order of the charges against Olmert and Zaken to be heard in court, Abarbanel said that the alleged illegal activities currently being investigated took place at the same time as those included in the indictment regarding the Investment Center.
“According to the second charge [regarding the Investment Center and Talansky affairs], Messer was dealing directly with Olmert,” Abarbanel told the court. “The new allegations include other projects that were considered by the Investment Center. There is a suspicion of ongoing and uninterrupted actions [in the Center]. The facts related to one subject influenced others.”
Abarbanel told the court it would be best to allow the police and the state prosecution to complete their investigation of the new suspicions. Perhaps they would not have an impact on the current charges, but it was more likely that they would, he said. For example, new facts might be added to the current indictments and new witnesses might be added to the list of those called to testify. He promised the court to complete the investigation as quickly as possible.
Olmert’s lawyer, Zohar, said he was angry at the state for proceeding with the trial for several months even though it was already conducting a secret investigation of the affairs that came to light only on Wednesday. He said it was obvious that an investigation was taking place, since some of the matters involved in the three projects had reached the courts in the form of civil suits involving investors and others. Therefore, there had been no reason to keep the criminal investigation a secret until now.
Zohar also said that the defense had spent the entire Pessah holiday preparing itself for the witnesses whom the state had announced it was calling up to testify on the Investment Center affair. It was all a waste of time and the prosecution knew it all along, he complained.
After hearing both sides, Judge Musi Arad asked the prosecution and defense precisely what they wanted to do now.
asked for a suspension of the trial. He said that Navit Negev, the
attorney who was to defend Olmert in the Rishon Tours affair, was not
yet ready. She had only been hired after the previous attorney, Yehuda
Weinstein, was appointed attorney-general in December. Negev added that
she had urgent and unexpected personal problems that she had to deal
with in the coming weeks.
Abarbanel initially called on the
court to begin hearing testimony immediately on the Rishon Tours
affair, but agreed to hold off to accommodate Negev.
consulting with one another for about an hour, the three judges ruled
that the hearings would be postponed until May 6, when the court would
reconvene to begin hearing the Rishon Tours case.