Will Israel's ex-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Go to Jail After New Conviction?

After convictions of aggravated fraud and breach of trust, new judge in retrial says Olmert should have been charged in initial trial. He is likely to appeal sentence, to be handed down in May.

Ido Baum
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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert waits for a verdict in Jerusalem's District Court on Monday, March 30, 2015.Credit: AP
Ido Baum

The conviction of Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, on corruption charges on Monday morning could be the key event in the collapse of the entire Olmert house of cards.

Before the Jerusalem District Court's retrial in the case – involving Olmert's alleged receipt of cash envelopes from U.S. businessman Morris Talansky – the premier and his defense team had portrayed previous testimony by the American as indicative that the state prosecution and interested parties were persecuting Olmert.

However, the revelation of recordings made by Olmert's longtime former aide, Shula Zaken, vastly changed public sentiment regarding his role in the affair. Ultimately, those recordings along with Zaken’s diary, which the court finally accepted as evidence for the retrial, apparently led the three judges to conclude that there was indeed a basis for an indictment. Olmert was convicted unanimously of committing two offenses: aggravated fraud and breach of trust.

After District Court Judge Moussia Arad retired, she was replaced in the retrial by Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman, who stood out in the proceedings on Monday when she declared that her colleagues should have convicted Olmert in the initial trial.

The conviction now clears the names of the prosecution and its senior members of various accusations aimed at them in the case.

The maximum sentence for aggravated fraud is five years in prison. The maximum penalty for breach of trust is three years, but most courts favor punishment ranging from community service to one year in prison.

The hearing on sentencing will be held in May. Because the offenses are associated with the same acts, it is likely the sentences will not be consecutive.

Another question facing the court will be whether to combine any new punishment with the six-year sentence Olmert already received in the Holyland corruption trial. He is expected to appeal that sentence to the Supreme Court.

On the one hand, the crimes involve a similar type of corruption, such that one punishment for all may be sufficient. On the other hand, the convictions in different cases point to a serial criminal, thereby justifying a tougher position.

The challenge facing the court is not an easy one, when it comes to sentencing: It must take into consideration what the district court did previously when convicting Olmert of breach of trust in what is referred to as the investment center affair – the only conviction handed down in the previous round of affairs involving the premier. At the time, three years ago, the district court gave a lot of weight to Olmert’s status and achievements over the years, and only handed down a suspended sentence.

In any event Olmert will likely appeal the new decision in the Supreme Court.

The judges have based their conviction on Zaken’s diaries and recordings, and not on the reliability of her testimony per se. Thus, the judges were taking a similar route to the one that Judge David Rosen did in the Holyland affair: believing the credibility of the documents and evidence, and not the state witness, whose testimony is disputed.

At the same time, as in the Holyland affair, the defense lawyers will likely attempt to appeal by trying to cast doubt on the reliability of the evidence which Zaken, the state’s witness, provided. One can assume with a high degree of confidence that in the appeal, claims will be raised against accepting Zaken’s recordings, in light of the fact that some of the recordings were apparently knowingly erased.

The Olmert affair will be with us for a long time. The Supreme Court will convene as a panel of five justices to hear the appeal the former premier will submit. Because the result of the ruling in the Talansky affair has completely changed now, new arguments will be demanded during the appeal. Moreover, we also have to wait and see what the Supreme Court will rule in the prosecution’s appeal of his acquittal in the RishonTours case, which involved alleged double billing of Olmert’s travels. Then, again, there is his appeal against his conviction in the Holyland case.

Still, considering the string of convictions so far, should the Jerusalem District Court give Olmert jail time – exactly as the prosecution will demand – it will be asked whether to postpone his incarceration until the end of the entire appeal process, or, for the first time ever, send a former prime minister of Israel to jail.