The Israeli Supreme Court announced Tuesday it will hear the appeal in former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's trial next July. The State Prosecution will ask the court to render a harsher sentence on the former premier and to overturn his nearly complete acquittal.
Five Supreme Court justices will hear the case in two separate sessions (July 2 and July 4) that will be chaired by Chief Justice Asher Dan Grunis. The large five-judge panel reflects the unique nature of the case as Olmert's conviction several months ago marked the first time a former Israeli prime minister was found guilty in a criminal court. The other justices named to sit on the panel are Salim Joubran, Yoram Danziger, Neal Hendel and Uzi Vogelman.
A statement issued by the Supreme Court's press office Tuesday said that "because the parties to the appeal are acquainted with some of the more senior justices, these judges will not sit on the panel."
Last July, the Jerusalem District Court found Olmert not guilty on all but one count of fraud and breach of trust dating to the time he was Jerusalem mayor and a cabinet minister between 2002 and 2006. (In that capacity, he was also the most senior deputy to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and ultimately filled his role when the latter became incapacitated in 2006.) The most damning allegations surrounded Olmert's relations with American businessman Morris (Moshe) Talansky, who gave Olmert cash-stuffed envelopes. The Jerusalem District Court said that the prosecution failed to show beyond reasonable doubt that Olmert granted Talansky a quid pro quo for the money or that Olmert violated campaign finance regulations when he accepted the money (the relevant law has since been amended). Olmert was also accused of running a double-billing scheme to cover his travel expenses, but the court said there was doubt as to whether he knowingly violated the law.
Shula Zaken, who was Olmert's bureau chief at the time of the alleged crimes, was convicted on one count of fraud for her role in the double-billing scheme but was found not guilty in the Talansky Affair. The state hopes to overturn that acquittal too.
On his sole conviction, the three-judge panel ruled that Olmert helped clients of his friend, attorney Uri Messer, win state contracts, in what they called a grave conflict of interest. The court fined Olmert and gave him a suspended one-year prison sentence, but noted that he probably would have been handed a much harsher sentence had he not already paid a heavy price in having to leave office. (Olmert announced his resignation shortly after corruption allegations surfaced in late 2008.)
If the justices issue a harsher verdict that sends Olmert to prison for more than three months, this would deal a heavy blow to his plans to stage a political comeback. Such a prison term, according to the law, carries moral turpitude for seven years that makes it impossible for the offender to seek a Knesset seat during that period (unless the Central Elections Committee rules that the felonies involved carried no moral turpitude).
Olmert is also standing trial in a separate case surrounding the approval process in the Holyland Project, a massive residential construction project in Jerusalem named after a now-defunct hotel on the property bearing the same name. Olmert is accused of receiving bribe money in exchange for helping the project developers to get the necessary permits in the project when he was Jerusalem mayor between 1993 and 2003. So long as Olmert is standing trial, he is prohibited from holding a cabinet portfolio as per a High Court of Justice ruling from the 1990s. But that ruling is mum on whether this applies to the position of prime minister.