JERUSALEM — Hours before he went to jail Monday, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert released a homemade video protesting his innocence and maintaining that he had never taken bribes while serving in public office.
He then left his spacious villa in the Jerusalem hills, escorted by his security detail and trailed by news photographers, and entered Maasiyahu Prison in nearby Ramle to begin serving his 19-month sentence. His drive to jail was carried live on Israeli television.
Olmert is the first Israeli prime minister to spend time behind bars, a fact that commentators here acknowledged with a mix of both pride and shame.
Pride that the Israeli justice system in this case was both robust and impartial, that even the rich and powerful can be held to account. And shame that an internationally known Israeli leader could be exposed as a dirty politician who not only solicited bribes but conspired to obstruct justice.
Olmert was found guilty in March 2014 of taking money from real estate developers to build a massive luxury apartment complex in Jerusalem, called Holyland, when he was mayor of the city.
The development is infamous, both because of its size and the disparagement of critics, who consider it an eyesore.
In a separate case, Olmert was also convicted of accepting campaign contributions from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky in exchange for political favors when he was mayor.
As a member of the center-right Likud party, Olmert was repeatedly elected to parliament and was mayor of Jerusalem for 10 years.
Olmert served as prime minister from 2006 to 2009. He led the country during its 2006 war with Lebanon, which many Israelis considered a disaster. His popularity plummeted to 3 percent. He was one of the Israeli leaders who, with then-Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, struggled and failed to make a peace deal with the Palestinians. He waged war against Hamas militants in Gaza in 2008.
In the video he released to the media Monday morning, Olmert said the transformation from a prime minister, entrusted with Israel’s security, to a person who must now sit behind bars is “painful and strange to me.”
Known for his love of fine cigars and expensive tastes, Olmert will spend the next year and a half in a shared cell in a section of the prison that Israeli media have taken to calling the “VIP wing.”
“I also want to say that I deny outright the charges relating to bribery attributed to me,” Olmert said. “It is also important for me to note that all the charges do not touch on the time of my tenure as prime minister,” but during his run as Jerusalem mayor.
He said he accepted the sentence “with a very heavy heart.”
“No one is above the law,” said Olmert.
Outside the prison in Ramle, a handful of supporters of the former prime minister — and a few foes — turned out to see Olmert enter the secure facility, where he will be housed in a special wing renovated in recent years for special prisoners – judges, police officers, politicians — who cannot safely live among the general prison population, including inmates serving time for robbery, rape and murder.
Although Olmert is the first former prime minister to serve jail time, he is not the first high-level Israeli official to be incarcerated. The country’s eighth president, Moshe Katsav, is serving an seven-year sentence for rape and other sex-related crimes.
Ofer Shmueli, the warden of Maasiyahu Prison, told Israeli media that his staff had been given special training to treat the former prime minister with respect but not forgo the prison’s rules and discipline.
“Roll call is at 6 a.m, after that prisoners must clean their cells and the public areas in the wing,” Rami Ovadia, a former warden of the prison, said in an interview on Israeli radio. “After that they eat breakfast, nothing fancy, and there are no special requests.”
Ovadia said there is an exercise yard and a library exclusively for prisoners in Olmert’s wing. They can also order newspapers or watch television. It is unlikely that Olmert will be put to work, and it is still unclear exactly how he will spend his days. The former prime minister is only entitled to bring in basic personal belongings – socks, towels, a blanket, toiletries and books.
“This is a drastic change in personal freedom, for any person who suddenly finds himself behind bars it is not simple, but for someone who once had a lot of power and was involved in making high-level decisions to suddenly not be able to decide what he will eat for breakfast, what time he will get up and go to sleep, it is very complicated and difficult,” said Orit Adato, a former commissioner of the Israeli Prison Service.
She said that while Olmert is unlikely to get preferential treatment inside, his presence in jail is different to other prisoners.
“It is not that he will be treated differently, but his security affects the public’s security because of his knowledge and the information he has been privy to,” she said, referring to the years that Olmert was the recipient of Israel’s top secrets.
Even during visiting hours, he will be kept separate from the general prison population.
Adato said that it was a sad day for Israel and that Olmert’s entry into prison hurt the national morale.
“It’s hard to accept it, but on the other hand it proves that we are a state that is able to stand up to its top leaders and say: You are not above the law,” she said.