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Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, was on Tuesday acquitted of the bulk of corruption charges levelled against him, in a surprising twist to one of the most high-profile and longest-running political scandals in Israeli history.
The judges ruled that Mr Olmert was not guilty of any wrongdoing in either the so-called Talansky case or the Rishon Tours affair – two financial scandals linked to his political career before he became prime minister. However, the former leader was found guilty of breach of trust in connection with a third affair, the so-called Investment Center case, in which he was accused of granting favours to one of his business partners while serving as a minister.
Mr Olmert has yet to be sentenced, but legal experts say breach of trust is a much less severe charge than some of the other accusations he faced, which included fraud and falsifying documents.
Speaking after the verdict, the former leader sounded a triumphant note, prompting speculation among Israeli commentators that he may be plotting a political comeback. “I never defrauded anyone, not one institution or charity. There was no corruption,” he said.
Mr Olmert became Israeli prime minister in 2006, after guiding his centrist Kadima party to a resounding victory in the general elections. Under his leadership, Israel engaged in a series of high-level talks with the Palestinians in a bid to sign a comprehensive peace accord and allow the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The talks eventually ended without an agreement, but many diplomats and analysts believe that the two sides were rarely closer to a deal than under Mr Olmert.
His tenure was, however, overshadowed early on by the botched 2006 war in southern Lebanon, which ended without a clear-cut Israeli victory and exposed weaknesses both in the Israeli military and the political decision-making process. Mr Olmert’s grip on power weakened further after prosecutors launched a series of corruption investigations, details of which were frequently leaked to the press. Facing pressure from within his own party, he announced in July 2008 that he would not seek re-election as leader of Kadima – and left office the following year.
What sealed Mr Olmert’s political fate above all else was the steady drumbeat of leaks and revelations that arose from the Talansky affair – which centred on allegations that the former Israeli leader had received illicit campaign contributions from a US-based fundraiser named Morris Talansky, including in envelopes stuffed with cash.
“Four years ago, all of Israel’s media outlets were filled with reports of envelopes of cash. There were no envelopes of cash. None,” Mr Olmert told journalists after the verdict.
The second high-profile case became known as the Rishon Tours scandal, and involved allegations that Mr Olmert had repeatedly claimed travel expenses from two or even three separate sources for the same trip between 2002 and 2006. The judges of the Jerusalem District Court ruled unanimously that Mr Olmert committed no wrongdoing in either the Talansky or the Rishon Tours affairs.
Analysts were quick to point out that Tuesday’s verdict came as a huge blow to Israel’s prosecution service, which is now facing accusations that it needlessly forced out an elected prime minister.
Yoel Hasson, a Kadima member of parliament, told Israeli media after the court ruling that “a prime minister was impeached for nothing”. He added: “This is a dark day for the state prosecution and the state prosecutor must seriously consider what is next for him.”