Former PM Olmert Begins Serving Prison Sentence, a First in Israel's History

The former prime minister maintains innocence of bribery as he heads to a newly renovated wing of the Ma'asiyahu Prison for 19 months.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert enters Ma’asiyahu Prison to begin serving a 19-month sentence, February 15, 2016.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert enters Ma’asiyahu Prison to begin serving a 19-month sentence, February 15, 2016. Moti Milrod

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert entered Wing 10 of Ma’asiyahu Prison on Monday to begin serving a 19-month sentence for bribery and obstruction of justice in the Holyland corruption case, which grew out of the years he was mayor of Jerusalem (1992-2003).

In a video released on Monday, Olmert maintained that he is innocent of bribery, but said that he accepts the verdict with "a very heavy heart."

Olmert expressed regret that his term as prime minister concluded under the shadow of a police investigation.

"Today I am a former prime minister who stands to serve a prison sentence," he said. "This is an unusual and grave development, which some will see as confirmation of the Israeli democracy's might. But in the same breath I would like to raise the possibility that the legal case against me snowballed due to non-judicial reasons.

"...Perhaps once time passes the public could examine this sad moment through critical and balanced eyes," he said.      

Security personnel at Ma'asiyahu Prison prepare for the arrival of ex-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Moti Milrod

Less than seven years have passed since he ended his term as prime minister and Olmert still is considered a “protected person.” To assure his security and that of certain other prisoners, the Israel Prison Service has set up a special wing for them, Wing 10. The self-contained section will cater to the prisoners’ needs, including visits, medical care, education and therapy. All those convicted in the Holyland case will be housed there, except for one of the developers, Hillel Cherney, who will be serving his 26-month sentence in Hermon Prison. 

The wing at Ma’asiyahu was not specially constructed for these prisoners; a relatively old building, it has been renovated to the standard of all prison wings that have been recently improved, at a cost of some 4 million shekels (slightly over $1 million). With a capacity of 18, its first four inmates were admitted last week.  

The wing has six cells with three beds each. Each cell also has a shower and bathroom, a closet, a table, chairs and a television. There are public phones in the hall, a classroom/clubroom in the wing, a visitors’ room, two rooms for meetings with lawyers; a room that serves as a synagogue, a library, a dining room, a yard, sports equipment, and offices for a social worker and the wing director.

From the moment Olmert entered prison, responsibility for his security moved from the Shin Bet security service to the prison service, which is to secure him at all times, including during visiting hours, court appearances and furloughs. Olmert will be eligible for his first 24-hour furlough after completing a third of his prison term. Subsequent furloughs could be as long as 96 hours.   

Olmert was to go through the same intake procedure as every prisoner, including a search and the handing over of any valuables for safekeeping. He was to be photographed, undergo a medical checkup, and be interviewed by a social worker, intelligence officer, and the wing director before being assigned to a cell.

Olmert is allowed to bring with him the same clothing and personal effects as other prisoners: Four pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, two towels, two tracksuits, a single-sized blanket and cover, two bed sheets, a pillow case and personal hygiene products. He can keep his identity card and up to 1,500 shekels in cash; he is also allowed religious articles such as tefillin, a prayer shawl, and religious books. 

A prisoner can also keep some personal articles in the wing; these are considered privileges that can be taken away for bad behavior. The wing also has rules about what items that family members can bring to the prisoner during their visits. Holding prohibited items in one’s cell is considered a disciplinary infraction. By law, a prison guard may inspect every item that is brought into or taken out of the wing.

Olmert and his fellow inmates will following the same schedule as prisoners throughout the prison system, including three meals a day at specific hours. Special diets must be approved by prison professionals. 

Still pending is Olmert’s appeal to the Supreme Court of his conviction and sentencing in the Talansky (cash envelopes) affair, which the Jerusalem District Court set at eight months, to be served in addition to his other sentences. The state is appealing the suspended sentence given Olmert for breach of trust in the Investment Center case, with the prosecution demanding a harsher punishment. 

In December, Olmert’s appeal of his conviction and sentence in the Holyland case was partially accepted when the Supreme Court acquitted him, based on reasonable doubt, of transferring half a million shekels in bribes from state’s witness, the late Shmuel Dechner, to the ex-premier’s brother, Yossi Olmert. But the judges unanimously let stand the conviction of accepting 60,000 shekels in bribes in the Hazera affair, an offshoot of the Holyland case. That reduced Olmert’s prison sentence in the case from six years to 18 months.

Last week, the Jerusalem District Court rejected a plea bargain Olmert had reached with the prosecution on two counts of obstruction of justice in the Holyland case. Olmert had asked that his six-month sentence for that crime be served concurrently with his other prison term, but the court agreed to only five months being concurrent, with one month to be served in addition to the 18-month Holyland sentence.  

The others convicted in the Holyland case who will be joining Olmert in Wing 10 included Danny Dankner, the former Bank Hapoalim chairman, who was convicted of bribery and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment; Meir Rabin, the right-hand man of the state’s witness Dechner, who got five years; former Jerusalem city councilman Eli Simchayoff, who got 18 months; former Jerusalem city engineer Uri Sheetrit, who got seven years; and Holyland developer Avigdor Kelner, sentenced to two years. 

The Holyland case, named for the complex of luxury apartments built in southwestern Jerusalem, involved bribes of various kinds paid to officials to increase the building rights in the complex for the developers’ benefit.