Ehud Olmert and the Fight for His Life

After spending three years and some $1 million to clear his name, the former Prime Minister walked out of the courtroom this week largely exonerated.

Prior to the rulings handed down on Tuesday of this week, June 2, 2011, was apparently the most riveting day in the trial of Ehud Olmert. That day was Olmert's second day on the witness stand, and he devoted it to describing his period as prime minister.

One day, early in 2007, the head of the Mossad and two senior officials in the espionage organization asked to see him urgently, the former prime minister told the court. "I am trying to find the words with which I can relate what occurred," he went on. "They put a piece of information on my desk such as rarely happens in the country. Silence fell. I looked at them, they looked at me. I knew that from that moment, nothing would be the same again. The weight of this thing, at the existential level, was of an unprecedented scale."

Olmert did not elaborate, but it was clear that he was referring to the information which led, according to foreign sources, to the attack on the nuclear reactor in Syria in September that same year.

"At some point, [there was] a knock on the door," Olmert continued. "I say, 'Don't come in.' But the door opens and the head of the national information unit enters. He says, 'I'm sorry, but in another half hour Channel 2 is going to broadcast something related to Bank Leumi. We need our reaction.' I said, 'I'm not interested. Leave and close the door. Don't let anyone in.' Looking back, when I think about that moment, you know what you're facing, you know personally what is threatening you, but you can't talk about it. Who can you tell? I was in a state of agitation."

It was also on that June 2 that he discussed the media leaks about his investigation by the police: "Maj. Gen. [Yohanan] Danino [at that time the head of investigations, currently the police commissioner] promised there would be no publicity. Only a very few knew, and they had all signed a secrecy commitment. 'There is no chance that anything will get out, you can rest easy,' I was told."

In court, Olmert turned to his lawyer, Eli Zohar, and said, "At the time, you [Zohar and Danino] agreed that in order to ensure secrecy, the police personnel would come in civilian clothes and in an unmarked car and would enter the parking area of the Prime Minister's Residence, in order to ensure a total [news] blackout. That evening, the newscasts opened with a dramatic report that the prime minister would be questioned the next day in his residence. You [Zohar] spoke to Danino and he told you that there was no longer any need for them to come in civilian attire. Above all, I felt insulted, I felt anger, a sense of betrayal. There is no limit. Everything is allowed, everything is possible. Terrible anger and a terrible insult."

In the past three years, Olmert waged what he called "the fight of my life." First, he put together a dream team of Israeli criminal lawyers. The captain was his good friend and veteran attorney, Zohar. Under his guidance, the country's top attorneys in the field - Navot Telzur, Navit Negev-Ram and Roy Blecher - handled the various cases against him.

On an average day, Olmert was represented in court by between five and seven defense lawyers and interns. On dramatic days, no fewer than 13 people in black robes accompanied him, not counting aides, media advisers and friends. They were able to find cracks in almost every layer of the prosecution's wall of charges and to broaden them to the point of reasonable doubt.

Take the Rishon Tours case, which the prosecution considered the most solid in terms of evidence. The prosecutors submitted documents which attested to overpayments for trips abroad by Olmert. Some of the papers had comments in his own handwriting.

Attorney Negev-Ram, who handled this case together with attorneys Gal Harari-Goldman and Alon Buechler, had to cope with reams of documents concerning orders for plane tickets and hotel rooms, frequent-flyer miles and elaborate details of means of payment and working procedures in Olmert's bureau. In the course of dozens of court hearings, Negev-Ram submitted a vast number of papers to the court, which documented Olmert's many trips abroad.

These exhibits finally led to two dramatic findings. First, that Rachael Risby-Raz - Olmert's former travel coordinator and the key witness in the case - actually tried to differentiate between private and public trips. And second, that in many trips not only was there no overpayment, there was underpayment.

"When there are trips with overpayment, it's logical that there will also be trips with underpayment, because then you have a funding source," the prosecutor, Uri Corb, argued. He thus unwittingly sabotaged the prosecution's case, which was based on a claim that there had been a clear and deliberate method on Olmert's part.

The judges accepted Negev-Ram's argument completely. "The fact that some flights were underpaid [to Rishon Tours] and not fully funded, even though full funding could prima facie have been received for them, does not support the prosecution's argument that there was a deliberate method to create surpluses," they wrote.

"We called it archaeology," Negev-Ram told Haaretz after the verdict."Through the documents we were able to reconstruct Rachael's working method."

"I would say that the investigative team did not discover what we did," she adds. "I would have expected them to look at the documents more skeptically."

According to Olmert's media adviser, Amir Dan, "The prosecution deliberately presented to the court very small items from the total number, and hoped the court would be persuaded that this was the general rule. Absurdly, it was the defense team that had to do the work and submit the evidence."

Olmert's confidants say the former prime minister was on top of all the details and was involved in formulating the lines of defense and the day-to-day handling of the cases. He passed notes and made comments to his lawyers and was well informed about every development. At the same time, he was emotionally involved in the court sessions. Although he gave a business-as-usual impression and smiled at everyone, it was obvious at times that what was said about him in court stung.

According to sources involved in the trial, the cost of the defense, after large-scale reductions in the lawyers' fees, will be at least $1 million. "He doesn't have that kind of money. He gave talks, worked and barely funded it," says an Olmert confidant.

As for the prosecution, their version of events was largely accepted by the court - but their legal interpretation of the events was rejected.

There were envelopes containing cash, the judges agreed, but there was no crime involved.

There were surplus funds at Rishon Tours, but it was not proved that Olmert knew about this. The implication is that this is a verdict that is susceptible to appeal, with the Supreme Court being asked to reconsider the height of the legal bar set by the District Court.

Attorney Eliahu Abarbanel - presently the assistant attorney general, but for most of the trial and beforehand the Jerusalem district attorney - conducted the prosecution case with Corb, but refuses to comment on a possible appeal. In any event, the court still has to decide on the punishment for Olmert in the one charge on which he was convicted (breach of trust for improperly working to secure grants and tax breaks in the Investment Center case ), and for his longtime bureau chief Shula Zaken, who was convicted on two counts in the Rishon Tours case. Only after that will an appeal be possible.

Abarbanel says he doesn't think there was an imbalance in terms of the prosecution and defense teams. "That is the easiest issue for me to comment on," he says. "We were up against 13 lawyers, but we also had a good team and an excellent prosecutor. Uri Corb is one of the best criminal lawyers in the country. He is tireless and addresses every nuance. I definitely feel that this was a battle of equals."

Abarbanel rejects the contention that the prosecution made a mistake by not ascribing sufficient importance to the deficit trips in the Rishon Tours case. "If there is a criminal who sometimes commits a serious crime and sometimes does not, will we not indict him? It is impossible to understand everything completely. It's possible that there were cases in which it was difficult to collect the money - maybe it was embarrassing to ask for the money, maybe a mistake was made. But the fact is that Shula Zaken was convicted. Can anyone seriously argue that it would have been a mistake to file an indictment only against Zaken?"

Abarbanel continues to believe that the Rishon Tours affair was the most solid of all the cases. "What really surprised us - and not only us - was the acquittal in the Rishon Tours case," he says. "No one thought beforehand that there would an acquittal. I hear police investigators asking themselves, 'Is there something new here?' How is it that a person doesn't ask himself, 'How come I travel all over the world without paying?' He doesn't ask: 'What's going on in this grocery store that I don't have to pay?' But I have nothing against the judges. If a judge feels that, despite everything, there is a doubt, I expect him to acquit. I thought there was no doubt."

After our initial conversation, Abarbanel called back. It was important for him to add something. "We spent maybe a thousand hours in court and we saw an honorable legal procedure, learned and fair. No words can convey my experience as a lawyer who appears before a court such as this. It's not just a slogan to say that we respect the court - we really do respect it."