Olmert Denies Any Link to Holyland Bribery Affair

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday denied any connection to the alleged bribery scheme involving the "Holyland" residence project in Jerusalem, which was promoted during Olmert's decade-long tenure as the city's mayor, Channel 2 news reported.

"I must say I am very surprised," Olmert told Channel 2 news while on a vacation in Spain, adding that "no one has contacted me or any of my attorneys, and no one has asked me for a thing, so I don't know what the commotion is about and I deny everything that was hinted at in relation to the case."

Earlier this week attorney Uri Messer, a close confidant of Olmert, was arrested 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 on the suspects' remand, the deputy president of the Rishon Letzion Magistrate's Court, Abraham Heiman, said this was "one of the worst corruption affairs in Israeli history. If the investigation uncovers sufficient evidence to serve an indictment, the effects will be earth-shattering."

The allegations involve bribes paid to obtain building permits for a number of real estate projects, including the highly controversial "Holyland" residential project in Jerusalem. The project was built on the site of the Holyland Hotel despite widespread public protests.

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.

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

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 building officials in its promotion.

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.

The Holyland site was originally intended for a hotel, but in 1999 the municipality allowed 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.