JERUSALEM: Ehud Olmert was once described as “probably the best” politician Israel had ever produced, but a major graft scandal has tarred him as the first ex-premier to face prison for bribery.
Like many of his predecessors, the 68-year-old’s reputation has been dragged through the mud by his links to a string of corruption allegations.
But on Tuesday, he was sentenced by a Tel Aviv court to six years behind bars and handed a fine of one million shekels ($290,000/210,000 euros) after being convicted in March on two charges of bribery in one of the worst corruption scandals in Israeli history.
The trial, which included 16 defendants and ran for more than two years, was linked to the construction of Jerusalem’s massive Holyland residential complex when Olmert served as the city’s mayor and later as a cabinet minister.
“He held the most important and central position and ended up convicted of contemptible crimes,” sentencing judge David Rosen said.
“Somebody who accepts a bribe is like a traitor,” he added.
Six weeks earlier, in a damning 700-page verdict, Rosen spoke of “corrupt and filthy practices,” and said Olmert had lied to the court.
It was his second conviction in under two years.
In September 2012, a Jerusalem court handed Olmert a suspended sentence and a fine, two months after he was convicted of breach of trust but cleared on two, more serious charges.
It has been a humiliating fall for the debonair man who took over as premier in 2006 after his mentor and predecessor Ariel Sharon lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered.
Olmert always insisted on his innocence, describing the allegations against him as “a brutal, ruthless witch-hunt.”
But Israel’s political leadership has a long history of brushes with the law.
Sharon himself was enmeshed in a major corruption scandal when he collapsed into the coma.
And in 2011, disgraced ex-president Moshe Katsav began a seven-year jail sentence after being convicted on two counts of rape and other sexual offenses.
Olmert resigned as premier in September 2008 after police recommended he be indicted for graft but he remained in office until March 2009, when the serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was sworn in.
Before taking over as premier in 2006, Olmert was recognised as a key strategist behind many of Sharon’s boldest moves, including Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, and his decision to leave the rightwing Likud and form the centrist Kadima party.
Time magazine was so impressed that it dubbed him “the 12th Israeli to serve as prime minister and probably the best politician of them all.”
After Sharon’s collapse, Olmert led Kadima to victory in March 2006 on a platform of dismantling dozens of settlements and withdrawing troops from most of the West Bank.
But from that point, things began to go downhill, with his West Bank plan shelved after a bloody 34-day war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah that summer that left more than 1,200 dead in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 in Israel, mostly soldiers.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Olmert lacked an illustrious military background and his handling of the crisis was harshly criticized.
Although he rejected peace talks for decades, Olmert underwent a late-career conversion, playing a key role in Israel’s 2005 pullout from Gaza and later reviving negotiations with the Palestinians.