Olmert: Holyland Probe Is 'Unprecedented Character Assassination'

Former PM named as prime suspect, denies allegation of involvement in real estate bribery affair.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday made his first comments on the Holyland bribery affair since being named a prime suspect earlier in the day, saying there is not a hint of truth in the allegations against him.

Olmert, who was Jerusalem's mayor from 1993 to 2003 and prime minister from 2006 to 2009, said in a pre-recorded statement aired on prime-time television that he was innocent and ready to answer police questions over the so-called Holyland affair.

"I am saying as adamantly as I said in the past, I have never been offered a bribe, and I never accepted a bribe from any man, for any mater, in any way, whether directly or indirectly," Olmert said.

Olmert was named on Thursday as the previously unidentified senior figure suspected of accepting an NIS 3.5 million bribe to facilitate the construction of the Holyland project in Jerusalem.

Police suspect that, between 1999 and 2008, the Holyland Development Company and associated land developers paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to senior decisionmakers in the Jerusalem municipality, members of its planning and construction committee and officials in the Israel Land Administration.

"I welcome the decision to lift the gag order in what is being called the Holyland affair," Olmert said.

"I am relieved," Olmert said. "My name has in any case appeared in the press, and no one had any doubt about the identity of the suspect named as A.A. This is a case of unprecedented character assassination both in terms of scope and strength."

Olmert went on to add that the allegations have harmed both him and his family, saying baseless rumors about him have been spread that "do not have even a hint of truth to them."

"I supported the Holyland project from the start, when it was just three hotels meant to strengthen tourism in Jerusalem," said Olmert, adding that the project was part of an effort in the mid-1990s to draw non-Orthodox residents to Jerusalem.

Olmert said the project's plan changed after he ceased to be Jerusalem mayor and that he was not involved in it after he left office.

"I want to clarify: In recent years, during the time that I was involved in the state of Israel's most critical matters, the police opened six criminal investigations of bribery against me - and all six cases that focused on bribery were closed," Olmert said. "Among them was the Bank Leumi case, which was characterized as the most serious corruption case in Israeli history, as were the Cremieux affair and others."

Olmert said the probes have caused him distress, "but not for a moment did I imagine not cooperating with Israel's police investigation," he said.

Olmert, who is already on trial in another corruption case, cut short a trip abroad and returned to Israel early Thursday following reports alleging his involvement.

Olmert's attorney, Eli Zohar, sent a letter to Jerusalem District Attorney Eli Abarbanel on Sunday, asking that the prosecutor's office coordinate the scheduling of any police interrogation of Olmert. However, no response has yet been received.

A police official who was directly exposed to the evidence gathered against former Olmert on Thursday said that it was substantial and demanded unequivocal explanation.

"This case is not based on Moshe Talansky and his memory, but on substantial material, on documents and papers," the source said, referring to the American Jewish businessman suspected of passing Olmert cash-stuffed envelopes in another corruption case.

"The code name for this case is 'documentation,'" the source said, adding that "police and the prosecution in this case have the kind of material that they could not get their hands on during the Talansky affair."

Police have already questioned dozens of figures connected to the construction project, some of whom testified that Olmert and other senior Jerusalem officials were involved in the suspected graft.

Some of the testimonies went into detail regarding the mechanism with which the funds were allegedly transferred.

Police believe that Olmert received his money through two channels: first through his close friend and associate attorney Uri Messer, who was arrested last week; and second, through his former by bureau chief, Shula Zaken, who is currently abroad and expected to be questioned by police upon her return.

The Rishon Letzion District Court on Thursday released Messer to house arrest on the condition that he would stay outside of Jerusalem and the surrounding area.

The court ruled Messer will have to pay bail in cash, and will be forbidden from traveling abroad for a period of 180 days and from contacting other suspects in the case.

Meanwhile, a Petah Tikva court on Thursday rejected appeals from four other suspects in the case. Hillel Charney, Avigdor Kelner, Eliyahu Hasson and Uri Sheetrit will remain in prison until April 21.

Police announced on Wednesday the arrest of Uri Lupolianski, a rabbi who succeeded Olmert as Jerusalem's mayor and held the post until 2008, in an investigation into whether bribes amounting to millions of dollars were paid for building permits.

No charges have been filed against Lupolianski, who was a deputy mayor under Olmert.

Lupolianski, who was Jerusalem's mayor from 2003 to 2008, is suspected of receiving more than NIS 3 million in bribes from Charney, owner of the site on which the Holyland project was built, in exchange for facilitating the project.