JERUSALEM – The Associated Press
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. AFP photo.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was indicted on corruption charges Sunday, becoming the first Israeli premier to go on trial and highlighting a series of cases that have shaken the public's faith in the political system.
The charges likely end the three-decade career of a man who just three years ago seemed poised to lead his nation to a bold withdrawal from the West Bank and an aggressive push for peace with the Palestinians.
Olmert, who was forced to step down because of the case, was accused of illegally accepting funds from an American backer, double-billing for official trips abroad and pocketing the difference, concealing funds from a government watchdog and cronyism. All of the alleged crimes took place before Olmert was elected prime minister in 2006.
Olmert, 63, issued a statement professing his innocence. "Olmert is convinced that in court he will be able to prove his innocence once and for all," said a spokesman, Amir Dan. The formal charges in the indictment include fraud and breach of trust. The Justice Ministry did not say when the trial would begin or what penalties Olmert could face. But Moshe Negbi, a leading legal commentator, said the fraud charge alone could carry a prison term of up to five years.
A rumored political comeback would be highly unlikely unless he is cleared. "In the immediate future it doesn't seem possible, but it all depends on the court," Negbi said. Olmert, a lawyer by training, has repeatedly been linked to corruption scandals throughout a three-decade career that included a lengthy stint as Jerusalem mayor and a series of senior Cabinet posts. But until Sunday, he had never been charged. He is the first prime minister, sitting or retired, to be charged with a crime. The indictment follows a string of high-profile trials that have soured an already cynical public toward the nation's leadership.
Olmert's former finance minister was sentenced to five years for embezzlement in June, and another member of his Cabinet was sentenced to four years for taking bribes. Israel's former ceremonial president, Moshe Katsav, is being tried on rape and sexual harassment charges, and a longtime Olmert aide has been charged with illegal wiretapping, fraud and breach of trust.
Olmert's spokesman said his priority is to focus on his legal battle. "Once this is over and he has proved he is innocent, then he will consider what to do next. All options are open," he said.