Graft Trial on Hold as ex-PM Extends His Overseas Stay

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert will not return to Israel until early next week, even though he was scheduled to take part in another court session in his graft trial today, his associates said.

They said he was in the United States for a few days and is expected to be in Europe until his return. The session has been postponed.

The three-judge District Court panel hearing the corruption case said it would decide in the coming weeks whether to change the order of the hearings on the charges against Olmert, as requested by the prosecution on Tuesday. As-yet unpublished details of the case may come to light tomorrow, when the court discusses the prosecution's request.

At the judges' request, Jerusalem District Prosecutor Eli Abarbanel will today present his reasons for seeking a change in the order of the hearings, beginning with the Rishon Tours charges rather than the Investment Center charges.

In the Rishon Tours affair, Olmert is accused of financing his own and his family's private flights through money obtained fraudulently from public institutions while he was serving as minister of industry, trade and labor and as mayor of Jerusalem. In the Investment Center affair, he is accused of making political appointments while serving as industry and trade minister and of granting personal favors to his old law partner, Uri Messer.

For various reasons, the background to the prosecution's request cannot be detailed.

Olmert's attorneys vehemently oppose the change.

"That is not the way to hold a trial," Olmert's media adviser, Amir Dan, said yesterday. "The prosecution is trying to have a finger in every pie while trampling on Olmert's basic right to a fair trial."

Members of Olmert's inner circle were tense yesterday following developments in Olmert's trial and the arrest of two of his close associates, Messer and former Jerusalem city engineer Uri Sheetrit. One of Olmert's confidants said yesterday that Olmert was preparing for any eventuality.

Messer was to have testified for the prosecution in the coming weeks, and Olmert's associates reportedly consider him to be one of the most important witnesses.