Verdict near in trial of Israeli ex-premier


JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli court will deliver a verdict Tuesday in the corruption trial of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, capping a five-year saga that has plunged the country into uncharted legal waters.

Olmert could become the first Israeli ex-premier to be convicted of a serious crime that carries a prison term. An acquittal, on the other hand, could raise questions about whether an overzealous prosecution hounded him from office.

"There is no precedent to this," said legal analyst Emanuel Gross. "The state of Israel, unlike many other democratic states, has taken the rule of law to its optimal place. This trial proves that no one is above the law, not even the prime minister."

Under Israeli legal precedent, a Cabinet minister, including a premier, must step down if he is indicted for a serious crime. Olmert was charged in September 2009, and he resigned.

The verdicts Tuesday cover three separate cases: illegally accepting funds from an American supporter, double-billing Jewish groups for trips abroad and giving jobs to unqualified political cronies.

The American supporter has testified to giving Olmert hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of it in envelopes stuffed with cash. Olmert has denied any wrongdoing.

The trial covered offenses allegedly committed before Olmert became prime minister, while he served as mayor of Jerusalem and later as a Cabinet minister. The charges were filed only after he became premier.

If convicted on all the charges, Olmert could face up to five years in prison.

Olmert's legal woes will not end with Tuesday's verdict. He is still facing a separate trial in which he is accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to promote a contentious Jerusalem building project when he was the city's mayor and later the Cabinet minister of industry and trade.

The flurry of allegations hurt Olmert's chances of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians. Olmert claimed to be close to an accord just as he was driven from the premiership.

Since leaving office, Olmert has said he offered the Palestinians a peace deal under which Israel would have ceded about 93.5 percent of the West Bank, along with Israeli territory to make up for the 6.5 percent of the West Bank land that Israel would retain. He also proposed international administration of east Jerusalem's most sensitive holy sites.

At the time, the Palestinians' chief negotiator said they turned down the offer because they were not willing to compromise over full control of east Jerusalem.

Negotiations have been largely frozen since Olmert left office.

There were other instances of corruption in Olmert's Cabinet. His former finance minister was sentenced to five years for embezzlement, and another member of his Cabinet was sentenced to four years for taking bribes. Neither case occurred while the two were in the Cabinet.

Last year, former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted of rape and other sex crimes. He served as president from 2000 to 2007.

Olmert faced corruption accusations throughout his long political career but has never been convicted.

The 66-year-old Olmert has largely stayed out of the public eye since stepping down.

A veteran politician known less as a statesman than as a backroom dealmaker, Olmert was catapulted unexpectedly into the country's top job when a stroke incapacitated his predecessor, Ariel Sharon.

Besides the inconclusive peace efforts with the Palestinians, his term was marked by a war with Lebanon's Hezbollah in 2006 and a bruising offensive in Gaza in early 2009 that largely halted years of Palestinian rocket fire.