Former Israeli premier Ehud Olmert cleared of charges that drove him from office


Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert speaks to the press at the District Court in Jerusalem on Tuesday after hearing the verdict in his trial where he was acquitted on two key corruption charges while finding him guilty on a lesser charge. (GALI TIBBON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

An Israeli court on Tuesday cleared former prime minister Ehud Olmert of two corruption charges, including a bribery accusation, that led to his resignation in 2008 as he was trying to negotiate peace with the Palestinians, but it convicted him of a lesser charge of fraud and breach of trust.

While some commentators hailed the mixed verdict as proof of an independent justice system, the decision was widely viewed as an embarrassing blow to Israeli prosecutors, and it raised questions about whether an overly aggressive investigation had wrongly driven Olmert from office.

Olmert was convicted of fraud and breach of trust in connection with a case dating to 2006, when he was a government minister. But he was acquitted of more serious charges that he had pocketed envelopes stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from a wealthy New Yorker, Morris Talansky, and that he double-billed state agencies and charities for overseas flights while he was a minister and mayor of Jerusalem.

“There was no corruption. There was no taking of money, there was no use of money, there were no cash envelopes,” Olmert said Tuesday after the ruling.

Olmert was thrust into power in 2006 after his boss, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, suffered a stroke. Olmert led Israel through an inconclusive but damaging war with the Lebanese militant movement Hezbollah that summer and restarted long-dormant negotiations with the Palestinians in 2007.

At the time, those talks appeared to have little traction, and they were cut short by an Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and early 2009.

Elections after Olmert’s resignation ushered in the administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative Likud party. Peace talks have been essentially moribund since.

Yoel Hasson, a lawmaker from Olmert’s centrist Kadima party, told the Israeli news Web site Ynetnews.com on Tuesday that he hoped Olmert would return to politics. The corruption accusations, he said, had “wronged one of the best prime ministers Israel has ever had. . . . The Israeli public finally understands that a prime minister was impeached for nothing.”

After Olmert’s resignation, he and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said they had been close to a pact in 2008. Former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has written that Olmert secretly presented a map for a Palestinian state that included international control of holy sites in Jerusalem, but that Abbas did not agree to it.

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