The State Prosecution announced Tuesday that it plans to appeal former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's partial acquittal on corruption charges, as well as the lenient sentence he received for his sole conviction for breach of trust.
Eli Zohar, who heads Olmert's defense team, was notified of the decision personally by the head of the State Prosecution's Criminal Division, Joey Ash, during a phone conversation the two held Tuesday.
In July, the Jerusalem District Court found Olmert guilty of breach of trust for failing to address a conflict of interest during his tenure as a cabinet minister several years ago. In its ruling, the three-judge panel said Olmert had knowingly violated the law by helping clients of his close friend, attorney Uri Messer, win state contracts. However, on the most serious offense involving undeclared cash donations, the court said the prosecution had failed to demonstrate Olmert had knowingly violated the law when he accepted envelopes stuffed with bills from American businessman Morris Talansky when the former was Jerusalem mayor and later when he became a minister.
On a separate charge, alleging that Olmert, as a minister, had pocketed money intended to fund travel expenses in an elaborate double billing scheme, the judges ruled that Olmert's bureau chief, Shula Zaken, was to blame.
Despite Olmert's almost complete court victory, which culminated last month in a suspended prison sentence of one year and a financial penalty, the judges faulted Olmert for engaging in highly questionable practices and said that he would have likely been handed a much harsher sentence had he not stepped down from his post as prime minister in 2008, shortly after the allegations surfaced (the resignation took effect in 2009).
At last month's sentencing hearing the judges did not mince words in their rebuke of Olmert's behavior and said the actions that led to his conviction on one count of breach of trust were not just a matter of procedural missteps.
The prosecution's decision comes three weeks before the deadline for filing an appeal. According to the law, the prosecution can appeal a verdict no later than 45 days after the final sentencing in the case.
The State Prosecution has been intensely deliberating on the matter over the last three months to determine its next move.
State Prosecution officials recently drafted a memo highlighting the fact that in their ruling, the Jerusalem District Court judges did effectively accept the state's assertion that the evidence in the Talansky affair was damming and did not accept Olmert's explanations, which were partially based on Talansky's own testimony. However, the court eventually said that there was reasonable doubt as to whether Olmert had knowingly committed a crime by using the money unlawfully.
Olmert's media adviser, Amir Dan, issued a response to the prosecution's announcement Tuesday saying that the planned appeal was "unadulterated, cruel and personal persecution against Mr. Olmert."
"Rather than accept the criticism and study the court decision so as to avoid repeating the mistake of forcing an incumbent prime minister in Israel to step down without proper justification, the State Prosecutor [Moshe Lador] seeks to safeguard his own reputation and have do-over," Dan said.
An official at the State Prosecution condemned Dan's remarks on Wednesday, saying his comment represented an "unrestrained attack on the State Prosecution and State Prosecutor himself." Army Radio reported that officials at the State Prosecution stressed that the decision to appeal was unanimous and was made solely on professional grounds.
Olmert is currently facing trial in a separate corruption case. He is accused of accepting bribes when he served as the Mayor of Jerusalem in the 1990s as part of a scheme to cut the red tape for a controversial housing project in the city, known as the Holyland Project.
Meanwhile, Central Elections Committee Chairman Justice Elyakim Rubinstein denied a request by Ometz, a government watchdog, to prevent Olmert from running for the seat of prime minister in the upcoming election while standing trial. Ometz wanted Rubinstein to issue what is called a pre-ruling that would effectively make it impossible for Olmert to run for high office again.
Rubinstein noted that the committee cannot rule on such a hypothetical scenario, noting that Olmert has yet to announce his candidacy. Rubinstein added that the panel lacks any legal jurisdiction when it comes to determining someone's eligibility to serve as prime minister, only on their qualifications to run for a Knesset seat (in Israel the head of the largest Knesset faction usually assembles, and heads the government).
Olmert's potential return to politics has already rattled the political world and fueled speculation on a joint alliance comprising Center-Left parties. Olmert was scheduled to meet former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni on Wednesday. Analysts believe the two may run on a joint list in an effort to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but the two have so far remained mum on the matter.