Olmert: From Israel's 'best' to first bribery convict

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (centre) arrives at the Tel Aviv District Court, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on May 13, 2014. Ehud Olmert was once described as "probably the best" politician Israel had ever produced, but a major graft scandal has
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (centre) arrives at the Tel Aviv District Court, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on May 13, 2014. Ehud Olmert was once described as "probably the best" politician Israel had ever produced, but a major graft scandal has tarred him as the first ex-premier to face prison for bribery. -- PHOTO: EPA

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Ehud Olmert was once described as "probably the best" politician Israel had ever produced, but a major graft scandal has tarred him as the first ex-premier to face prison for bribery.

Like many of his predecessors, the 68-year-old's reputation has been dragged through the mud by his links to a string of corruption allegations. But on Tuesday, he was sentenced by a Tel Aviv court to six years behind bars and handed a fine of one million shekels (S$361,860) after being convicted in March on two charges of bribery in one of the worst corruption scandals in Israeli history.

The trial, which included 16 defendants and ran for more than two years, was linked to the construction of Jerusalem's massive Holyland residential complex when Olmert served as the city's mayor and later as a cabinet minister.

"He held the most important and central position and ended up convicted of contemptible crimes," sentencing judge David Rosen said.

"Somebody who accepts a bribe is like a traitor."

Six weeks earlier, in a damning 700-page verdict, Judge Rosen spoke of "corrupt and filthy practices", and said Olmert had lied to the court. It was his second conviction in under two years.

In September 2012, a Jerusalem court handed Olmert a suspended sentence and a fine, two months after he was convicted of breach of trust but cleared on two, more serious charges. It has been a humiliating fall for the debonair man who took over as premier in 2006 after his mentor and predecessor Ariel Sharon lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered.

Olmert always insisted on his innocence, describing the allegations against him as "a brutal, ruthless witch-hunt".

But Israel's political leadership has a long history of brushes with the law. Sharon himself was enmeshed in a major corruption scandal when collapsed into the coma. And in 2011, disgraced ex-president Moshe Katsav began a seven-year jail sentence after being convicted on two counts of rape and other sexual offences.

Olmert resigned as premier in Sept 2008 after police recommended he be indicted for graft but he remained in office until March 2009, when the serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was sworn in.

Before taking over as premier in 2006, Olmert was recognised as a key strategist behind many of Sharon's boldest moves, including Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and his decision to leave the rightwing Likud and form the centrist Kadima party.

Time magazine was so impressed that it dubbed him "the 12th Israeli to serve as prime minister and probably the best politician of them all".

After Sharon's collapse, Olmert led Kadima to victory in March 2006 on a platform of dismantling dozens of settlements and withdrawing troops from most of the West Bank. But from that point, things began to go downhill, with his West Bank plan shelved after a bloody 34-day war against Lebanon's Hezbollah that summer that left more than 1,200 dead in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 in Israel, mostly soldiers. Unlike many of his predecessors, Olmert lacked an illustrious military background and his handling of the crisis was harshly criticised.

Although he rejected peace talks for decades, Olmert underwent a late-career conversion, playing a key role in Israel's 2005 pullout from Gaza and later reviving negotiations with the Palestinians.

Following the relaunch of peace talks in November 2007 after a seven-year hiatus, Olmert met several times with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, reportedly making far-reaching concessions in a bid to reach an agreement. But the talks were abruptly halted just over a year later when Israel embarked upon a devastating three-week offensive in Gaza.

Olmert also entered into Turkish-mediated talks with long-time foe Syria in May 2008 over the issue of the occupied Golan Heights. A balding father-of-four with a lean physique and trademark roguish grin, Olmert was born near Haifa on September 30, 1945 during the British mandate of Palestine.

A lawyer by trade, he surprised many rightwing friends in the early 1970s by marrying left-leaning artist Aliza, who brought up their children with equally liberal views. He entered the cabinet in 1988 and five years later was elected as Jerusalem mayor, a post he held for a decade but in which he rarely distinguished himself, before returning to the government under Sharon in 2003.