State Seeks Dramatic Change to Graft Trial Against Former PM Ehud Olmert

In an almost unprecedented move, Jerusalem District Prosecutor Eli Abarbanel asked the court yesterday to change the order of hearings in the case against former prime minister Ehud Olmert and his bureau chief at the time, Shula Zaken.

At the beginning of the hearing on the number of hearings to be held in their case, Abarbanel asked the three-judge panel headed by court president Moussia Arad to change the order of hearings, usually determined at the beginning of a trial.

Abarbanel said the request was not motivated merely by a "caprice," but by substantive considerations. Yesterday Abarbanel was accompanied by Uri Corb, the deputy Jerusalem District prosecutor.

Corb recently returned after being forced to take a three-month leave of absence from the hearings following media reports of disparaging remarks he made about various judges and the judicial system as a whole.

According to the order of hearings set at the start of the evidentiary phase, a decision was made that prosecutors would begin by presenting witnesses in the Investment Center and Morris Talansky affairs, while those in the Rishon Tours case would appear at a later stage. This particular order was made in light of Yehuda Weinstein's appointment as attorney general four months ago.

Weinstein was previously expected to handle the defense in the Rishon Tours case, requiring the defense team to be rearranged.

In yesterday's hearing, Olmert attorney Eli Zohar vehemently opposed the prosecution's request. "It is impossible to wage a defense this way," he told the judges. "I come prepared for something very specific, for a particular case, and it turns out that under the surface things are happening that are damaging to the defense."

Zaken's attorney, Micha Pettman, also expressed firm opposition to the prosecution's request.

Out of court consultation

Following discussions between the prosecution and defense, the judges asked to leave the courtroom for a consultation, at the end of which they decided that a hearing would be held Thursday over the request. In the meantime, they said, witness testimony scheduled for yesterday would continue.

"I have never come across a request like this," Arad said upon returning to the courtroom. "There were instances in which one investigation was linked to another and the trial continued. As for the defense, I don't understand why they agree to a break and then wait, and as for you [the prosecution], I don't understand why you are filing this request."

Zohar told the court, "This morning we were surprised to hear about certain incidents taking place over two to three months, due to which the prosecution cannot continue hearing witnesses related to the Investment Center affair. We, of course, were also both surprised and saddened that the proper handling of the trial is being disrupted, and our attempt to bring it to as early an end as possible has failed. This is not how a trial is handled."

Olmert's media adviser, Amir Dan, said, "Again we find ourselves amazed at the hurried manner in which law enforcement authorities filed the indictment, then finds itself in a bind and tries to turn the entire trial around to extricate itself. The prosecution has not learned a thing about the initial witness testimony in the Talansky case, which proved itself to be one big farce. Now it's doing the same thing all over again."

Olmert is in the United States today for business, and is slated to continue on to Europe for more meetings. According to his original plan, he was scheduled to land in Israel tonight to participate in tomorrow's hearing.

Still, given the potential changes to the order of court hearings, judges acceded to the defense team's request and allowed him not to attend the court session, which is now expected to be merely technical in nature.

Among the witnesses to appear yesterday were Benjamin Broder, an assistant to tycoon Yitzhak Tshuva. Broder told the court about meetings between Tshuva and Talansky. Olmert allegedly asked Tshuva, owner of the Plaza Hotel in New York, to buy mini-bar refrigerators for their properties produced by a firm in which Talansky had a considerable stake.