JERUSALEM — Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced Tuesday to six years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of about $290,000 after being convicted in March of taking bribes from real estate developers when he was mayor of Jerusalem more than a decade ago.
Describing Olmert’s acts as moral turpitude, Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rosen said the higher the public post of an individual, the harsher the punishment for bribery should be.
The judge’s remarks and the prospect of jail time for a former prime minister — Olmert served in the post from 2006 to 2009 — sent shock waves through Israel’s political establishment and society, with many referring to it as a sad day in the nation’s history.
This is the first time such a high-level Israeli official has been found guilty of a breach-of-trust crime, although former president Moshe Katsav is serving a seven-year sentence for rape, and several government ministers have been convicted of crimes.
“This is a sad day for me, personally,” President Shimon Peres told Israeli reporters during a state visit to Norway. “But this is the legal process which is custom in democratic states.”
Peres’s words were echoed by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose politician father, Tommy Lapid, was close friends with Olmert.
“A day in which a former prime minister is sent to jail is a sad day for Israeli democracy as well as a sad day for me on a personal level,” Lapid told reporters. “But at the same time, it is an important day in which the legal system showed that no man is above the law.”
Six other officials in the case also were sentenced Tuesday, includinga former chief engineer of Jerusalem, Uri Shitrit, who will serve seven years. The others received three- to five-year sentences. Additional ex-officials, including another former Jerusalem mayor, Uri Lupolianski, will be sentenced in the coming months for their parts in the affair.
The judge said Olmert and the others sentenced Tuesday would head to jail Sept. 1, giving them a chance to appeal the verdict. Amir Dan, a spokesman for Olmert, said the former prime minister would take his case to Israel’s supreme court.
“Generally speaking, this is probably the biggest corruption affair in the history of Israeli politics,” said Doron Navot, a lecturer in the school of political science at University of Haifa. “Not only in terms of the seniority of the participants or in the fact that it took place over many years and involved so many people, but also because it involved huge sums of money and caused visible damage to the public interest.”
Navot, however, said the ruling did not reflect a turning point in Israel’s judiciary or political system.
“This affair took place more than a decade ago. It does not reflect Israeli politics, and it does not reflect reality, not today and not back then,” said Navot, who has written several books on public corruption in Israel.
Although Olmert plans to file an appeal, Navot said it is unlikely that he will be successful.
Israel Prison Service Commissioner Aharon Franco said that imprisoning a former prime minister was “exceptional” and that discussions had taken place to ensure his safety while incarcerated.
Speaking at a policy conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Franco said that Olmert, as a former prime minister, had high-level knowledge of state secrets and that his time in prison would be coordinated with Israel’s security agency.