The Holyland trial involving former prime minister Ehud Olmert will reach its
climax when he testifies for the first time on Sunday.
could have a decisive influence on the trial’s ultimate outcome. The trial’s
outcome, in turn, could be decisive in determining whether Olmert could return
to the political arena with a bang – as one of the few political personalities
still viewed as a challenger to Prime Minister Binyamin
Holyland is Olmert’s second trial.
His first, the
Jerusalem corruption trial, ended in July 2012 with his acquittal on the most
serious charges. The prosecution appealed, but many expect it to lose.
the Holyland trial, which began days before the first trial ended, Olmert is
accused of accepting over NIS 1.5 million in bribes (out of around NIS
9m. given to public officials in total), either directly or through aides
and his brother, Yossi.
This was said to have occurred from around 1993-1999,
while Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem, for the purpose of advancing the Holyland
real estate project in south Jerusalem and smoothing the way for project heads
to overcome zoning and other legal barriers.
The trial has seen many
stages since it started in July 2012.
The early days were difficult for
Olmert and the other 15 defendants accused of taking bribes and committing
Shmuel Duchner, who for around eight months of the trial was known
only as S.D., had the floor and charged Olmert and the other defendants with a
wide range of highly specific charges which he and the prosecution backed up
with a mound of documents.
Duchner said the project “could not have
happened” without Olmert’s support, obtained through kickbacks, and that Olmert
questioned him in detail about the real estate initiative and how he would get
“reimbursed” for assisting with approvals.
He said that originally, the
project was only approved for building on 25,000 meters of land, while
eventually 311,000 meters of land were approved thanks to the graft.
main state witness also testified that Olmert’s bureau chief, Shula Zaken, in
one instance requested emergency assistance to pay a NIS 50,000 debt, to which
he responded by giving Olmert’s driver $10,000 that he had on hand, having just
returned from abroad.
Duchner also recounted instances in which he said
he had given up to NIS 350,000 in funds directly to Zaken, to pay for her
jewelry and furniture.
In January, the prosecution strengthened Duchner’s
charges regarding bribes he paid to Yossi at Olmert’s request, when it called
Morris Talansky to testify that Olmert had similarly convinced him to pay
$30,000 to his brother in 2004.
According to the prosecution, this proved
Olmert’s manner of operation in getting multiple people – not merely Duchner –
to pay him bribes via Yossi.
Then, the prosecution had several rough
months during cross-examination of Duchner, in which he was cornered into
admitting that some of his allegations against some of the defendants were made
up to sweeten the case against them.
The charges against Olmert could
have survived this assault, as the prosecution had backed up Duchner’s testimony
with external documents.
But another bomb dropped on the case: Duchner
admitted not only to concocting some of the allegations, but also to forging
some of the documents.
Olmert’s lawyers caught him in a dramatic moment,
showing that he had done a messy photocopying job in combining unrelated
documents – when they demonstrated that a telephone number in a document did not
exist on the date the document was allegedly drafted.
sledgehammer to the prosecution’s case was the death of Duchner in March, in
surreal fashion fit for a legal thriller, right in the middle of being
cross-examined by Olmert’s lawyers (he did not collapse in the court itself, but
in between court sessions and before they had finished questioning him).
Duchner’s death not only removed the state’s main witness from pushing its case
forward, but also potentially gave Olmert’s lawyers the argument that all
charges against him, at least those originating with Duchner, should be dropped
since they did not have a full and fair opportunity to
This argument, while not necessarily a death sentence for
the case, could be based on the idea that you cannot convict a defendant based
on testimony unless the witness is cross-examined, giving the defendant a full
chance to confront the allegations against him.
But Judge David Rozen may
and can decide that enough cross-examination took place or that enough other
external evidence exists to convict Olmert. Then in April, the prosecution was
openly flirting with dismissing the case, according to the state’s deputy head
prosecutor, Shuki Lemburger.
In May, life was again breathed back into
the prosecution’s case when Olmert’s wayward brother (testifying via
video-conference from the US, where he has been in self-imposed exile since 2004
for NIS 3 million he owes to black market figures) wrecked portions of Olmert’s
narrative and built up the credibility of Duchner’s earlier
The key point around Yossi’s testimony was whether in
2002-2003, Duchner had given him NIS 500,000 and whether Duchner did this as a
bribe for Olmert’s helping move the Holyland project forward.
previously told police that he had met with Duchner and been given NIS 500,000,
but that Olmert knew nothing about it.
This was Olmert’s simple – if not
entirely impermeable – defense from police questioning as well: Duchner was
running around trying to bribe or find favor with people, but Ehud never
requested or knew about it. Thus, it was not his problem – and he was not
Whether speaking truthfully or because he can’t read a script,
Yossi told the court that he had never met Duchner or gotten money from him –
except Yossi later admitted that he had, in fact, met him and received a smaller
amount of money in 1996.
Why would Yossi tell something untrue to police
that would hurt his brother more? He gave several different answers, but in one
of them he likely subconsciously slipped and mentioned that Olmert was currently
in the room with him.
The prosecution pounced and accused him of
blatantly changing his story out of fear of Olmert being there, and even
Olmert’s lawyers accused Yossi of lying, in an attempt to protect Ehud’s
The court, in an unprecedented open show of its view, told
Yossi that his story actually worked better with Duchner’s story, that he gave
Yossi money as bribes for Olmert, than it did with Olmert’s story – and said it
may use Yossi’s testimony to nail the former prime minister.
there has been little directly impacting Olmert’s case, but other big defendants
like former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski and former chief city architect Uri
Sheetrit have taken big hits in the cases against them.
credibility lent to the prosecution’s overall narrative from this – that
Holyland was a massive fraud in which Duchner bribed a group of public
officials, including Olmert – can only have helped the prosecution in convincing
the judge to buy its arguments against Olmert.
Where does this dizzying
array of back-and-forth changes in momentum leave the case against Olmert, as he
takes the stand on Sunday?
While Olmert is probably in better shape overall than
he might have predicted 14 months ago, the case against him is very much alive.
At the end of the day, whether a judge thinks there is reasonable doubt to the
charges against a defendant often depends on whether the judge finds the
defendant’s in-court denials and explanations credible.
Olmert will need
to convince Rozen either that he did not know about any of the money being paid
to his bureau chief, driver and brother for causes as diverse as paying off
debts to helping with his elections campaigns, or that he did not view the funds
as a bribe, but as genuine political support.
He will need to explain why
Duchner would be buying Zaken expensive jewelry, when they had no known
relationship aside from Zaken being Olmert’s “right hand” and Duchner wanting
Olmert’s help with the Holyland project.
Olmert will need to make some
sense of why Yossi was getting money from both Talansky and Duchner, when
neither of them had any connection to him – besides Olmert.
He will need
to make the case why, even as Rozen has openly appeared ready to condemn other
defendants as being involved in the fraud, that his hands were clean.
may succeed in doing so, partly because he was careful not to take funds
directly from Duchner.
Most of Duchner’s contact with him was through
Zaken, who it appears may have made some independent requests of
If he does, he may finally clear his name after five years of
legal wars with the prosecution in multiple “affairs” that few can keep track
of, and may get one last chance to restore his political legacy and shake up the
Israeli political scene.
If he cannot convince Rozen, even with all of
the holes he poked in Duchner’s testimony, his luck may finally run out – and
his political career may finally be at an end.