One of the most significant corruption trials in Israel’s history will finally come to an end on Tuesday morning, when the Jerusalem District Court pronounces its verdict in the trial of former prime minister Ehud Olmert and his former bureau chief Shula Zaken.
If the court finds Olmert guilty it will be the first time a former prime minister has been convicted in a criminal trial.
Olmert is being tried on three main charges of corruption – dubbed the Rishon Tours affair, the Talansky or cash envelopes affair and the Investment Center affair – with the indictment spanning events that allegedly took place during 2002-2006, first during Olmert’s tenure as mayor of Jerusalem and later when he served as a government minister.
Other charges listed on the indictment include that Olmert failed to disclosed donations from US businessman Joe Almaliah to the state comptroller.
For her part, Zaken is accused of aiding Olmert in relation to the Talansky and Rishon Tours affairs, and also of wiretapping conversations in Olmert’s bureau.
Both Olmert and Zaken have denied the charges against them.
The Rishon Tours charge alleges that Olmert double-billed various nonprofit organizations for overseas flights, and used the extra money – which the prosecution alleges totaled over $92,000 – to pay for private trips for himself and his family, via his travel agency Rishon Tours.
Under cross-examination in July, the former prime minister said he had thought the balance of his Rishon Tours account would have been covered by extensive air miles accumulated during numerous first-class flights overseas.
In testimony to the court in June 2011, Olmert maintained that Zaken would inform him whenever he owed Rishon Tours money and that he believed he had paid for his private trips. He also stated that he believed his family was eligible to fly using air miles.
The defense has also argued that any surpluses created at Rishon Tours were the result of errors made by Olmert’s then-travel coordinator, Rachel Risby-Raz, and that Olmert was not aware of them.
In the so-called Talansky Affair, Olmert is charged with receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from American businessman Morris Talansky.
According to the indictment, Uri Messer – Olmert’s longtime friend and former partner – kept a secret cash fund for Olmert which amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Some of the money came from Talansky and some from other donors. At one point, the indictment stated, the fund amounted to $350,000.
While the prosecution argued that the money was for Olmert’s private use, the former prime minister contends that the funds were in fact political donations and therefore did not have to be reported.
In his testimony to the court, Olmert said he “might have” transferred funds from Talansky to Messer, whereas he had denied doing so under police questioning.
The former prime minister testified that the reason he denied passing on the money when questioned by police was because of the “deceptive tactics” of police investigators, and also because he did not want to reveal the identities of two of the donors. Those donors gave testimony to the court behind closed doors last year, at Olmert’s request.
The Investment Center affair relates to the period when Olmert was minister of industry, trade and labor. The prosecution contends that Olmert granted illegal favors to Messer, who applied to the Investment Center for state grants and other benefits.
Olmert, however, argued that he had never “crossed the line” when dealing with Messer or his associates, and that he certainly had never committed a criminal offense.
While most criminal trials are heard by a single judge, in Olmert’s case, three judges – Jerusalem District Court President Moussia Arad, Judge Jacob Zaban and Judge Moshe Sobel – presided over the marathon trial, which took over two years and involved testimony from over 120 witnesses.
Even if Olmert is cleared of blame, his legal troubles will be far from over. In a completely unrelated trial in the Tel Aviv District Court, Olmert is charged alongside 12 other individuals – one of them Zaken – with corruption in connection with the Holyland Affair.