LONDON - Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been using his vacation after being acquitted on two charges of corruption and being found guilty of breach of trust in a third three weeks ago, to watch sports at the Olympic games and meet up with old friends. At least one of those friends was a co-star in another corruption case in which he was suspected.
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On Friday evening, Olmert and his wife Aliza were guests of honor at a festive dinner on the superyacht of Australian-Israeli billionaire Frank Lowry. In 2007, the friendship between the two was a subject of a long investigation by the Israel Police's National Fraud Investigations Unit, due to allegations that Olmert as finance minister had acted to alter the terms of the tender for sale of Bank Leumi, Israel second-largest bank, to assist Lowy who was interested in buying the bank. The State Attorney decided not to press charges "for lack of evidence" of criminal wrongdoing but said that Olmert had been in conflict of interest. The Supreme Court censured Olmert for his conduct though they upheld the State Attorney's decision.
Both families have what to celebrate right now. Olmert, has his temporary victory in his ongoing legal saga, allowing him to rest before the Holyland bribery trial continues at the Tel-Aviv District Court, where he is accused of receiving around NIS 5 million in exchange for assistance in expediting approval for expanded construction plans at the Holyland complex in Jerusalem. He has been spending the last few days at the Olympics, including watching Israeli tennis duo, Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich on Thursday at Wimbledon, alongside his friend football manager Avram Grant. Frank Lowy and his three sons are the owners and managers of the Westfield Group, builders and operators of shopping centers around the world. They are also strategic partners of the Olympic Games as their new Westfield-Stratford, the largest urban shopping center in Europe, is right by the Olympic village and the hundreds of thousands of visitors who go there each day pass through the shopping center.
Lowy, an 81 year-old Holocaust refugee, lived in Israel and fought in the Independence War before emigrating to Australia in 1952 and is now the third-richest individual down under. He is one of the biggest sponsors of sports in Australia, serving in the past as its Football Association chairman. He has moved to London for the duration of the games, but like other billionaires, instead of renting a suite in a 5-star hotel, he has moored his 74-meter super-yacht, the Ilona, at the quays of Canary Wharf, and is spending his days between the corporate suite of Westfield, overlooking the Olympic stadium, where a week ago he held a reception for the Australian team, along with 700 guests, watching some of the events and on his yacht, where last night he hosted around thirty guests for what the invitations called "a special Friday night dinner celebration in London in honour of our good friends Aliza & Ehud Olmert."
The Olmerts arrived at 7:45 PM in two separate cars and under heavy security. In addition to Olmert's Shin Bet bodyguards who travel with him wherever he goes in the world, around the yacht was team of at least seven Australian security guards, and the entire area was guarded by security operation of Canary Wharf which manages the moorings and there was also a heavy presence of armed London Police. Before Olmert's arrival, a sniffer dog checked the parked cars and the bags of tourists around the boat for explosives. It wasn't clear whether the high level of security was due to the former prime minister's presence or part of the general security apparatus in place for the billionaires whose yachts are moored there, including the Octopus, mega-yacht of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen which was aside Lowy's smaller but impressive boat.
The security personnel tried to prevent Haaretz's photographer from taking pictures of Olmert when he left the car to go up on deck, where he and Aliza where hugged by Lowy and his wife Shirley. A short while later, Canary Wharf's head of security was called to politely but firmly order the journalists to leave. Most of the other guests waited for the press to leave before making an appearance, some even stayed in their chauffeured cars nearby making sure there were no photographers to see them arrive.
Olmert and Lowy have been friends for many years. The Bank Leumi case began in 2006 when former Accountant General Yaron Zelicha accused Olmert that as finance minister, he had committed alleged criminal offenses by trying to change the terms of the tender of the sale of the bank in favor of his friends Lowy and American billionaire Daniel Abraham. The two decided in the end not to go for the tender, just two days before it was issued. Former State Comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss passed Zelicha's evidence to the Attorney General, recommending a criminal investigation which began in early 2007. Following a lengthy investigation in which Lowy gave evidence and Olmert, by then prime minister, was interrogated as a suspect twice, State Attorney Moshe Lador decided not to press charges for lack of evidence of "an additional severity" to Olmert's conflict of evidence. Despite this, he wrote in his report that "Olmert's conduct did harm to some degree the equal conduct of the process and the public's trust in its probity" and that "in some issues that are relevant to the strength of conflict of interest in which Olmert acted and in his conduct in the sale's process regarding his ties to the group and its representatives, the investigation remained with certain suspicions that had they been proven, may have served as a base for criminal felony. But this is a criminal investigation and only allegations which can be based beyond reasonable doubt, upon the evidence collected, can enable a criminal indictment."
The "Ometz" organization petitioned the High Court following Lador's decision and in August 2010, the judges upheld Lador but wrote that Olmert's conduct was "worrying." Judge Edna Arbel wrote that "the picture that emerges from the State Attorney's decision does not leave the reader with a comfortable feeling. Even if the State Attorney found that there is no sufficient evidence for an indictment, the picture emerging from the evidence is worrying." She wrote that "the situation where circles of family and friends play, mixed-up, when the sale of national assets whose implications to the stability of the economy is considerable, is at stake, is improper." She added that "even if evidence that Olmert tried or planned to benefit a certain group in the sales process has not been found, certainly the conducts described contains more than a cause for fault."
The High Court's ruling also stated that investigation found that Olmert "had a friendly relationship with Lowy and [U.S. business man, and another partner of the group that wished to purchase the bank, Mort] Zuckerman, but that it was not found that those ties were profound or that [Olmert] had financial ties of any kind with either of them."
"In addition, no basis has been found for the estimate that [Olmert's] relationship with Zuckerman and Lowy was closer or more special than his ties with other investors involved in the process," the ruling added.
Regardless, strong ties between Olmert and Lowy continued after the investigation. Two years ago, Olmert was to be the main speaker at a ceremony on the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, at the dedication of a rail box-car in the memory of Lowy's father, Hugo, who was murdered at the camp. Olmert was forced to cancel his participation at the last moment and return to Israel due to the publication of the Holyland investigation.
Amir Dan, Olmert's press advisor said in response that "there seems to be no limit to cheap intrusiveness and this is simply not worthy of comment."