Since September, the corruption trial of Ehud Olmert has been playing out in Jerusalem District Court with all the makings of a Greek tragedy. The once proud and powerful former Prime Minister of Israel, already forced from office by allegations of sleaze, faces three separate criminal cases, including charges of double billing charities and nonprofit organizations for travel expenses and receiving some $150,000 in cash-stuffed envelopes from a favor-seeking supporter. Olmert pleaded not guilty to all counts in December.
But lately, one thing has been missing from the trial: Olmert himself. He left the country last month, a few days before the trial entered an accelerated schedule. He has been out of the country ever since. The trial judge did not ask him to post bail.
In the meantime, the legal clouds around the case appear to be growing thicker. On Wednesday, April 7, Israeli prosecutors arrested Olmert’s close confidant and former lawyer Uri Messer on suspicion of helping to collect bribes, obstructing justice and laundering money in conjunction with an unnamed suspect. The local media are barred by a court order from revealing the identity of the suspect. The Jerusalem Post ran an article with the headline “Uri Messer Is the Link.” The police are calling the Messer case “one of the most serious corruption affairs in the state’s history.
Though originally due to return on April 7, Olmert remains in a hotel in Madrid, and associates now say he will be not be returning for another week. If and when he does, the police will be waiting for him at the airport, government sources told TIME, and the Israeli media are already speculating that he may be taken into custody. Olmert’s lawyer has denied that his client has done anything that would warrant being arrested. On Thursday, the lawyer asked that the former Prime Minister’s ongoing trial be halted so as to not be confused with the investigation of Messer. The judge agreed; Olmert’s trial is set to resume in May.
The new investigation concerns bribes allegedly paid as part of the approval process of major construction projects that occurred first while Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem from 1993 until 2003, and afterward when he was Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor. He became Prime Minister in 2006. Chief among the controversial projects was the 1999 development of the luxury Holyland residential towers on a prominent Jerusalem hilltop, which had originally been zoned for a hotel. Prosecutors are now alleging that Messer and Jerusalem’s city architect at the time facilitated the approval of the much larger — and, some critics would say, much uglier — towers after receiving bribes from the developers.
Despite his legal problems, Olmert still has robust business activities and business connections. After leaving office last year, Olmert opened a business-consulting firm in Tel Aviv, which has so far made hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the former Israeli leader continues to frequent the lucrative lecture circuit in the U.S. An arrest or new indictment, if either occurs, would likely be more of a public embarrassment than a political bombshell.
When Olmert left office last June, he already had rock-bottom approval ratings, thanks to his botched handling of the Lebanon war in 2006 and his ever accumulating scandals. In a poll conducted by Haifa University and released last month, he won the title of “most corrupt Prime Minister” in Israeli history by a landslide, with 52% of the vote. “I don’t see any chance of him coming back into politics,” says Raviv Drucker, a top political commentator on one of Israel’s main television channels. Whatever the outcome of his legal problems, Olmert has already come to symbolize a generation of politicians who eschewed the abstemious ways of Israel’s founding leaders and enriched themselves at a time of unprecedented security and prosperity, failing to address the deeper problems facing the country.
— With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv