Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert began testifying in his corruption trial yesterday and devoted most of the day to surveying his public career.
Periodically, one of the three Jerusalem District Court judges would urge him and his lawyer, Eli Zohar, to hurry up and get to matters actually relevant to the trial.
"I've been through much grief and distress to reach this moment," Olmert responded at one point. "It may be that these things belong to the distant past, but in the end, it will all tie up together into who I am and who I represented - which is not the man they [the prosecutors] are trying to depict. It's very, very important that you get to know the person I am. I apologize in advance."
Judge Jacob Zaban replied that most of the witnesses so far "have, in the nature of things, actually almost been your admirers."
"I'm fighting for my life here, not for anything else," Olmert retorted.
Olmert began by describing his birthplace, his army service and his career as a lawyer. He then described his rise through the ranks of Herut and its successor party, Likud, under prime ministers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon.
He described his years as mayor of Jerusalem and as industry minister at length, enumerating various projects he oversaw in both jobs. He also detailed his ties with overseas Jewish communities, which began, he said, when Likud took power for the first time in 1977 and Begin sent him abroad to reassure people about the new government.
He then went into detail about his various political campaigns and the fund-raising he did for them, including his ties with American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky - a long-time supporter whose alleged gifts of cash-filled envelopes constitute one of the three main charges against him. The other two are his alleged double-billing of various nonprofits for the same overseas flights, with the surplus then going into his own pocket, and his alleged abuse of his position as industry minister to influence decisions by that ministry's Investments Center.
Olmert said his successful 1993 campaign to unseat long-time Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek required massive amounts of money because he was of a "completely different stature" than his prominent rival. At one point, he recalled, "Kollek, together with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres [then a minister, now president] held a parade down [Jerusalem's] Ben-Yehuda Street with [famed violinist] Isaac Stern walking ahead of them and playing the violin" - a display of big-name support he couldn't match, so he needed cash to compensate.
It was then that he met Talansky, via two big donors to Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Hospital whom he had met while serving as health minister. Talansky was a fund-raiser for Shaare Zedek and well-connected in America's modern Orthodox community - a community whose Israeli counterpart Olmert needed to win.
"When they told me 'this is the man we rely on,' I didn't ask questions," he said. "I never dreamed he wouldn't meet every standard of ability and credibility. I met with him, and I have to say I liked him greatly."
Later, responding to a question from his lawyer, Olmert said he could "cautiously say" that his campaign raised "hundreds of millions of dollars."
Regarding his alleged double-billing for flights, Olmert stressed the sheer number of overseas trips he took.
"I want you to know what I did all those years, why I traveled - and for whom," he said. "I didn't travel 15 times, like it says in the indictment, but 300 times ...
"All my life, I never asked anyone to invite me on a trip. Not once. I never sought to vacation on the side. Never once did I take a trip, whether for a day or two or three, on which I didn't work from the morning I arrived until late at night. Not once did I stay over on a Thursday to relax over the weekend ... I never traveled for fun. I traveled to work."
Asked about his relations with his staff, he described an environment in which workers had broad authority and he relied blindly on his key aides, especially his long-time office manager - and now co-defendant - Shula Zaken.
"Shula had my full confidence," he said. "I could trust her to do many things for me personally, including coordinating the personal events I attended. Had it not been for Shula, I would never have known how much my overdraft at the bank had grown. There were cases in which she had my authorization to sign my checks. If there were bills to be paid, she paid them."
Olmert's testimony will continue tomorrow.
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