Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was acquitted Tuesday morning on a major portion of his 2014 conviction, as Israel’s Supreme Court accepted his argument regarding the state’s failure to prove he actually received half a million shekels in bribes as mayor of Jerusalem in the Holyland affair. The court kept Olmert’s conviction on receiving 60 thousand shekels as Minister of Industry.
Former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski’s sentence was reduced dramatically by the same court panel, from 6 years in jail to 18 months of community service. Lupolianski, who is credited with the foundation of Yad Sarah, a voluntary organization offering medical equipment free of charge to needy patients, told reporters with an obvious sense of relief: “I’ve been doing community service for twenty years, 18 months is nothing.”
Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday morning decided the appeals of eight who had been convicted in the Holyland affair. A panel of five judges decided whether to accept the arguments of the appellants and to interfere in the rulings of District Court in Tel Aviv on the bribery affair surrounding the construction of the Holyland project in southern Jerusalem. The Holyland case verdict of March 2014 convicted former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski, Holyland entrepreneurs Hillel Charney and Avigdor Kelner, former Jerusalem City Councilman Eliezer Simhayoff, former Jerusalem City Engineer Uri Sheetrit, former chairman of Bank Hapoalim Danny Dankner, and Meir Rabin, an assistant to state witness Shmuel Dachner.
In addition, former city councilman Avraham Feiner and Olmert’s former chief of staff Shula Zaken were also convicted. Zaken was convicted in a plea deal and was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment, of which she served about six and was released with a third of her sentence reduced.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted of two counts of accepting bribes: in the Holyland affair, when he served as mayor of Jerusalem, half a million shekels were transferred by state witness Shmuel Dachner to Yossi Olmert, Ehud’s brother, for advancing the entrepreneurial interests of the project; and the Ha’Zera company affair, when Olmert was Minister of Industry, and took a total of 60 thousand shekels from Dachner which were used to cover deficits from past election campaigns. For these two offenses, in both cases advancing the interests of developers, Olmert was sentenced to six years in prison, and had to pay a fine amounting to one million shekels, and to forfeit property worth 560 thousand shekels—the sum total of the bribe money.
In the 1990s, landowners at the site of the Holyland hotel were looking to improve and expand their building rights. The project that was planned for the area at first provoked strong opposition from the residents and from green organizations, who claimed it would damage the Jerusalem landscape. Despite numerous objections, the project was approved quickly by then Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, and by the chairman of the local planning and construction committee Uri Lupolianski. The quick approval for the project, the construction density exceptions and other exemptions given the project developers raised many unanswered questions at the time. The project resulted in a neighborhood with a spacious park, surrounded by about ten residential towers (12-18 floors), with terraced appartments at their bases, spread down the mountain slope. In addition, a single, 32-story tower was built, whose name goes down in the annals of both architecture and criminology as Holyland Tower.
In 1996 journalist Yoav Yitzhak claimed that Hillel Charney, the project developer, had obtained a false assessment of the value of the land, which enjoyed substantial tax benefits. Based on guidance from the Attorney General, a criminal investigation was launched against the Commissioner of Income Tax, Doron Levy, and his deputy Udi Barzilay. The police investigation did not result in prosecution, but forced Doron Levy to resign. A disciplinary committee by the Board of Valuers, which operates as a disciplinary court, opened proceedings against the assessors who were involved in the conspiracy. The two assessors were convicted.
Many years later, in the summer of 2008, the same Yoav Yitzhak revealed additional suspicions of misconduct in the project, alleging that the developers had bribed Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert. This was followed by a “draft statement of claim” prepared by businessman Schmuel Dachner, who was employed as a real estate consultant and broker by the Holyland project. He claimed not to have been paid some of his expenses and fees, and because his demands were not answered he prepared a “draft statement of claim” against those involved in the case, and then contacted the police regarding the matter.
On January 5, 2012, the State Attorney’s Office for the District Court in Tel Aviv filed an indictment against 17 defendants, on counts of giving or receiving bribes. The evidence phase began on July 1, 2012 with the testimony of Schmuel Dachner that he had given money to Shula Zaken. Dachner died on March 1, 2013, several hours after being cross-examined. Yossi Olmert, brother of Ehud Olmert, confirmed that Shmuel Dachner gave him half a million shekels. Olmert was likely planning to throw his old chief of staff, Shula Zaken, under this bus, and advised her—on tape—to sabotage the investigation. The State Attorney signed a plea bargain with Zaken, and she promptly delivered the missing pieces connecting Ehud Olmert to the bribe handed to Yossi Olmert. However, that entire 3-year saga has been expunged from the legal record as of this morning’s High Court ruling, which gave Olmert the benefit of the doubt on that part of his conviction.
Olmert’s battery of lawyers argued in his appeal that “circumstantial evidence in the trial did not necessarily comprise the image that would require conviction as the sole logical conclusion.” In other words, barring an actual receipt in Olmert’s handwriting, saying “Received the sum of half a million shekels as a bribe, please come again,” the court needed to hear from a reliable witness. Judge Rosen, in the original verdict, decided he believed the state witness Dachner—and the High Court would normally hesitate to go against his judgment in such a case; but Olmert’s attorneys—who concluded their cross examination of Dachner before the poor man met his maker—told the High Court they still had some questions for the departed, and since conducting a séance in the courtroom is out of the question, their client was deprived of the right to question his accuser.
In the end, the High Court’s ruling today is no less earth shattering in giving former prime minister Ehud Olmert 18 months in jail than it would have been had the original sentence of 6 years been kept. The fact is that a corrupt prime minister, who is widely considered to be not an exception but the rule in Israel’s political class, will go to jail for his crimes. Olmert is the first Israeli PM to have ever served jail time — Israeli courts have previously sentenced a president, government ministers and MKs to do hard time, but this is the first PM, which is the equivalent of the courts in the US sending Barack Obama to prison.
Put that in your hat the next time they tell you Israel is not a democracy.