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Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert kisses his former bureau chief Shukla Zaken after hearing the verdict in his trial at Jerusalem's District Court on Tuesday. (Ariel Schalit/Associated Press)
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert kisses his former bureau chief Shukla Zaken after hearing the verdict in his trial at Jerusalem's District Court on Tuesday. (Ariel Schalit/Associated Press)

Olmert’s apparent vindication gives Netanyahu pause Add to ...

Ehud Olmert left his mark on Jerusalem.

Mr. Olmert, now a former prime minister, was mayor of the city from 1993 to 2003, and there are at least three dramatic urban developments that bear his imprimatur. The most beautiful is the Bridge of Strings, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, that sits near the main entrance to the hilltop city; the most extensive is the city’s long-delayed and newly opened light rail transit system that runs the length of the expanded metropolis; and the ugliest is the highrise complex known, rather sacrilegiously, as The Holyland that scars the city’s skyline.

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With each project, Mr. Olmert sought to make a bold, some would say brazen, statement about one of the most significant cities in the world. It was not always appreciated. Many Jerusalemites spit out the name “Olmert” as if they were cursing, blaming the two-term mayor for the cost overruns and traffic snarls that accompanied each development, as well as for the project’s scale that seemed to be trying to upstage the Holy City’s greatest structures – the Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock.

These days, a lot fewer Israelis are cursing the name of the 67-year-old politician as he was acquitted this week of two serious criminal charges of taking bribes and committing fraud, while being convicted of a lesser charge of breaching public trust.

In some cases, the charges stem from Mr. Olmert’s days as mayor. Indeed, the man may yet stand trial on charges that he took bribes in order to expand the scale of that ugly Holyland development.

But this has been a week of celebration for the man whom many see as capable of making a political comeback, one that might seriously challenge Benjamin Netanyahu’s stranglehold on power.

The criminal charges, brought in 2009 by the country’s state attorney, forced Mr. Olmert to step down as prime minister, a position he had inherited just three years before from Ariel Sharon, when the latter fell into a coma from which he has yet to move.

The failure to convict Mr. Olmert on the most serious charges has led many in Israel to question the judgment and the motivation of the state attorney, for wrongfully forcing a man from office.

The key witnesses in the two principal cases proved to be less than compelling.

In the case involving American financier Morris Talansky allegedly handing Mr. Olmert envelopes stuffed with cash, the three trial judges decreed that Mr. Talansky was “a strange and confused witness, who was put on the stand to promote foreign interests.”

In the so-called Rishon Tours case, in which Mr. Olmert was accused of double and triple billing for travel expenses, the testimony of Rachel Mor, a former staff member, was found to be largely fictional.

Indeed, Ms. Mor’s admission on the stand that she had taken advice from a right-wing rabbi before contacting the Israeli authorities about Mr. Olmert’s alleged practices, has led many to suspect there was a conspiracy to unseat the then-prime minister.

A few weeks ago, in an interview with CNN, Mr. Olmert himself alleged that the people behind his ousting from the Prime Minister’s Office were Americans, who funded the investigation in order to change the political climate in Israel. His proposals for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not correspond with their worldview, he said.

“If this is true,” wrote political commentator Shimon Shiffer in the popular Yedioth Ahronoth, “this is the real shocker: Foreign money prevented the prime minister from promoting an historical solution.”

Ma’ariv’s leading political analyst Ben Caspit concurs: “This story clearly demonstrates the involvement of right-wing figures, political figures, unseen and dark forces who conspired to oust an incumbent prime minister of Israel from office, and found a faithful partner for that endeavour in the State Attorney’s Office.”

Just as he had left his mark on Jerusalem, Mr. Olmert had wasted little time before attempting to make his mark on the country, with a series of brash moves that were not all to the liking of the country’s more right-wing zealots.

Early in 2006, Mr. Olmert’s first year as prime minister, he ordered the demolition of an illegal West Bank outpost called Amona and, much to the shock of its right-wing supporters, actually carried it out.

The following year, he ordered the bombing of an apparent nuclear facility in Syria, a move that was welcomed by Israeli right-wingers, but followed that up by holding secret peace talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over a peace treaty that would include the return of the Golan Heights.

The right, and many other Israelis, cheered when Mr. Olmert attacked Hezbollah forces in Lebanon in 2006 and Hamas forces in Gaza in 2008. But the right were far from pleased when the then prime minister embraced the Arab Peace Initiative and quietly started to forge a peace agreement with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, even going so far as to offer to share the sovereignty of Jerusalem with a Palestinian state.

Condoleezza Rice, who was the U.S. secretary of state at the time, said afterwards that had Mr. Olmert remained in office, he would have reached an historic peace agreement with the Palestinians.

He didn’t, however, and a few months later, Mr. Netanyahu came to office. The advanced peace talks, which had almost reached the stage of drafting maps, were halted.

Mr. Caspit points out that if the State Attorney’s Office had looked as closely into the affairs of other politicians of Mr. Olmert’s generation it would have found just as many causes for suspicion. The thing is, says Mr. Caspit, someone decided to look.

“Someone marked the target. Someone went from one affair to another, from one story to another, was not deterred by the fact that a great many of the stories had already been investigated, refuted and closed, and continued, continued, and continued, until they found something, until it seemed they had found something and that was enough to create something as completely nuts as the preliminary testimony of Moshe Talansky, and to send an Israeli prime minister home at one of the most critical and historic moments of his term.”

The talk now in Israel is that Mr. Olmert will not serve time in prison for the breach-of-trust conviction, and the Holyland Affair may never come to trial.

Meanwhile, Mr. Netanyahu, like so many others, sent a message of congratulations to the apparently vindicated Mr. Olmert this week. Few think the congratulatory mazeltov was sincere, for it’s the Prime Minister who suddenly stands to lose from this whole affair.

“We cannot underestimate the Olmert effect on the political system,” wrote Yedioth Ahronoth’s senior commentator Sima Kadmon. “If he passes the hurdle of moral turpitude threatened by the sentencing in September and if the indictment in the Holyland affair, which seems a lot weaker than the charges of which he was acquitted, is cancelled following a hearing or for any other reason, Olmert will become a candidate for prime minister as early as in the next elections.”

“In that case,” Ms. Kadmon concluded, “the biggest loser from Olmert’s acquittal and his return to politics will be Netanyahu. The political arena will once again have an alternative, Olmert, which it hasn’t had for quite some time.”

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