Olmert Trial Postponed Until Next Month

Olmert lawyer dismisses rumors that former PM will be arrested upon return from trip abroad.

The Jerusalem District Court on Thursday decided to postpone legal proceeding against former prime minister Ehud Olmert by a month, to avoid muddling different corruption allegations together in a single trial.

Olmert's defense attorney earlier Thursday asked the court to halt the trial being carried out against the former prime minister until the investigation into a newly revealed corruption case has been completed.

"There is no point in getting into legal proceedings that are cut off, disabled, affected and defective," said attorney Eli Zohar. "What is happening today is a dance of the demons. Everything is being carried out in here quietly and tranquilly, but there is a storm outside. This trial cannot be held right now, until a decision has been made [on the Holyland case]."

Zohar was referring to a series of allegations involving bribes paid to obtain permits for a number of real estate projects, one of which has been identified as the highly controversial "Holyland" residence project in Jerusalem.

The project, built on the site of the Holyland Hotel despite large-scale public protests, was promoted during Olmert's decade-long tenure as mayor of Jerusalem.

Two other projects, which were never implemented, concern developing tourism at the Manara Cliff site in the Upper Galilee and construction at the former site of the Hiriya landfill, which today is being converted into a park. Both projects were promoted when Olmert served as industry, trade and labor minister.

Olmert's legal adviser Amir Dan on Thursday dismissed rumors that the former prime minister would be arrested for alleged corruption upon his return to Israel from a trip abroad.

"As of now, no legal authority has asked Olmert to cut short his trip abroad, or change his plans," said Dan. "Mr. Olmert will continue with his plans abroad and when he finishes his business, he will return to Israel. We are not considering the possibility that the police would put on some show just to put on a show."

Olmert had already been scheduled to return to Israel on Wednesday, but extended his trip in the United States and Europe until next week.

Attorney Uri Messer, a former close confidant of Olmert, was arrested Wednesday on charges of serving as an intermediary in the alleged bribery scheme. Five other suspects were also arrested in connection with the charges.

At the hearing Wednesday on the suspects' remand, the deputy president of the Rishon Letzion Magistrate's Court, Abraham Heiman, said this was "one of the worse corruption affairs in Israeli history."

"If the investigation uncovers sufficient evidence to serve an indictment, the effects will be earth-shattering," Heiman said.

Messer is suspected of facilitating bribes, accepting bribes, false registration, obstruction of justice and money laundering. His remand was extended Wednesday by six days, but he said he would appeal.

Another suspect in the case is architect Uri Sheetrit, who served as Jerusalem city architect from 2001 to 2006. He is alleged to have accepted bribes in exchange for supporting the Holyland project and joining other planning and construction officials in its promotion.

Police add that while Sheetrit was initially opposed to the project, he later became an enthusiastic supporter, actively promoting it to the benefit of the entrepreneurs. Sheetrit himself claimed Wednesday that he had never approved the project. His remand was extended by eight days.

Other suspects arrested in the case have been named as Hillel Charney, director of the Manara Cliffs and former director of the Holyland project, who is the chief suspect in terms of bribes issued to Sheetrit and to Messer; Meir Rabin, formerly employed by the Holyland project, who is suspected of passing bribes to Messer as well as influential officials; and Eliyahu Hasson, who has served as Holyland's accountant for the past 15 years. All three had their remand extended by six days, while a sixth suspect, Amram Benizri, was placed under house arrest.

Police on Wednesday raided the offices of Polar Investments, owner of the Holyland company. Searches were also conducted at the Jerusalem City Hall and in other locations. The raids followed a prolonged undercover investigation conducted by the National Fraud Investigation Unit. Only a portion of the information on the case has been released to the press.

'Monsters on the mountain'

The Holyland project stands between the neighborhood of Ramat Sharet and the cross-Jerusalem Begin Highway. The site was originally intended for a hotel, but in 1999 the municipality allowed Hillel Charney to construct luxurious residential towers instead. In 2003, the Holyland company proposed a new plan for four residential towers - two with 67 housing units and two with 43. Despite over 300 objections from Jerusalem residents filed with the planning committee, the plan was given the go-ahead in November 2005. Sheetrit served as city architect at the time.

"Anyone who travels on the Begin road in Jerusalem reaches Golumb Street and on the right is confronted by these monsters on the mountain," Heiman said of the Holyland towers. "They deface the city and bewilder the onlooker."

The other project in question is the Manara Cliff tourism site, built 12 years ago at a cost of over NIS 20 million. The site, jointly owned by Kibbutz Manara, the Kiryat Shmona Economic Company and Charney, is considered to be one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Upper Galilee, boasting 250,000 visitors a year.

Nine years ago, the planning authorities cleared some 8,600 square meters near the cliff's upper cable car for construction - for hosting, entertainment and trade purposes. Two more plots of land were also cleared for use at the lower cable car area: One, 4,400 square meters, was meant for tourism and hotels, and the other, at 8,800 square meters, for road services and tourism.

The third project involved unfreezing plots of land in the Ayalon Park, near the former Hiriya landfill on the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv. The land, part of a site planned for a large-scale urban park, was leased by the Hazera company. Charney was one of the partners in the proposed construction project.

Hazera actively promoted clearing the land for construction, claiming this was the only way to generate profits to support the park set to be built on the site. Planning officials in the Interior and Environmental Protection Ministries, as well as a number of environmental organizations, vociferously opposed the plan and the unfreezing was never carried out.