Buoyed by Acquittals, Can Former Israeli P.M. Olmert Resurrect His Political Career?

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was acquitted of a number of major corruption charges, but is not out of the woods yet. As legal wranglings proceed, what are the odds that he can return to the political limelight and take over his centrist Kadima party?

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Ariel Schalit / Reuters

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert arrives at the Jerusalem District court before the reading of the verdict in his trial July 10, 2012. Olmert was found guilty on Tuesday of a corruption charge in the first criminal trial of a former Israeli prime minister, but acquitted on two other counts in what was widely seen as a significant victory for him.

Ehud Olmert looked like a new man Tuesday, smiling ear to ear after hearing a Jerusalem judge announce his acquittal on the two most serious of three corruption cases. Olmert surrendered Israel’s premiership after the indictments were handed down in 2008, but after a trial spanning three years and 157 hearings, the only conviction was for “breach of trust” in the least spectacular of the charges, one finding the politician improperly helped a former partner while serving as a minister of trade, industry and labor.

In the world of Israeli politics, “breach of trust” is regarded as a manageable setback. When a prominent legislator was handed the verdict of “moral turpitude” in a separate case a year ago where he was convicted of perjury, the political establishment, including the press, nodded solemnly and went on about what great things awaited him after he did his time in the penalty box. (After being briefly suspended from the Knesset and fined 10,000 shekels, the legislator is back in his seat.)

Still Olmert is not in the clear quite yet. Though he was found not guilty of accepting envelopes of cash in what’s known as the Talansky Affair, and of pocketing $92,000 from double- and triple-billed travel in what’s known as the Rishon Tours Affair, he faces another trial. That would be for the affair known as Holy Land, the audacious name of a humongous residential development that towers over southern Jerusalem.  The project began when Olmert was the Jerusalem mayor, and he is among those accused of receiving bribes to let it go forward. All of his alleged crimes took place before Olmert began his two years as prime minister in 2006, after Ariel Sharon’s near-fatal strokes.

“From a legal point of view it’s a great victory for him, because the accusations hit pretty hard,” says Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University. Politically, however, the immediate lift Olmert is experiencing may not last terribly long. He still faces sentencing for breach of trust, which won’t be a pleasant headline. And if he returns to politics, opponents will find a good deal of fodder in the court transcript: Olmert’s defense was that his office was a place of utter chaos, where one knew who was paying for what (his former bureau manager, who was convicted of fraud and breach of trust, was quoted as saying she “took one for the team”).  The chief judge’s opinion, rather than simply exonerating Olmert, pointedly afforded him “the benefit of the doubt.”

“And the main issue is still ahead of us, and that’s the Holy Land issue,” Diskin says. “Great, great victory legally.  Great public victory in the short run. But the heavy cloud is still above his head.”

Should that cloud clear, the Kadima Party he once headed stands waiting. The colorless Shaul Mofaz did Olmert the favor of running off their mutual rival in the party, Tzipi Livni, earlier this year. On Tuesday, Mofaz issued a statement of praise and congratulations for Olmert on Tuesday, perhaps signaling a willingness to hand over leadership of Kadima, which hasn’t exactly thrived under him. After finishing first in 2009 balloting, polls showed it headed for humiliation in the autumn election Prime Minister Benjmain Netanyahu first called, then called off after agreeing to take Kadima into his governing coalition.

(MORE: Israel’s new coalition and Netanyahu’s power-play.)

Netanyahu has since toyed with Mofaz by waffling on a promise to require more of the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the military. Such is Mofaz’s magic that displeasure with Bibi’s moves clung to him: The Kadima chief was booed off the stage Saturday when he tried to address a rally supporting the very changes he champions.

One sidebar to the Olmert verdict:  The reaction among Palestinians.  As premier Olmert met dozens of times with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, and by late 2008 may have been closer than any other Israeli leader to hammering out a peace deal.  The final outcome would never be known, however, because the indictment forced Olmert out of office.  Palestinians like to observe that Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the 1994 Oslo Accords, was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli.

“Whenever an Israeli leader comes close to making peace, something happens to him,” a senior Palestinian official observed, with a look both wry and solemn.  The acquittal might be taken as confirmation of the conspiracy theories, which by definition, of course, need none.