JERUSALEM — Former Israeli leader Ehud Olmert vigorously proclaimed his innocence Friday at a Jerusalem court hearing that marked the first time a current or past Israeli prime minister has stood trial.
The opening of court proceedings was the latest chapter in a legal saga that weakened Olmert's leadership as he tried to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians, undermined public confidence in government and eventually drove him from office.
Entering the court, Olmert told reporters that he had been subjected to an "ordeal of slanders and investigations."
"I come here as a man innocent of any crime, and I believe I will leave here as a man innocent of any crime," Olmert said.
Formal charges include fraud, breach of trust
The 63-year-old Olmert left politics when his rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, became prime minister last March, and has largely been out of the public eye since then.
The charges facing Olmert include illegally accepting funds from an American supporter and double-billing Jewish groups for trips abroad.
The incidents in question date from his time as Jerusalem mayor and later as a Cabinet minister, but emerged after he was elected prime minister in 2006. Olmert eventually stepped down because of the allegations, triggering elections that led to the formation of the Netanyahu government currently in power.
The formal charges include fraud and breach of trust. Israel's Justice Ministry has not said what penalties Olmert could face, but the fraud charge alone could carry a prison term of up to five years.
The testimony of the American supporter, businessman Morris Talansky, who said he had given Olmert hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of it in envelopes stuffed with bills, helped galvanize public opinion, and in late 2008 Olmert announced he would step down.
Olmert did not testify at Friday's brief hearing. The trial is expected to take months.
Olmert's legal woes were the most prominent of a series of high-profile cases during his term in office and helped sour an already cynical public toward the nation's leadership.
His former finance minister was sentenced in June to five years for embezzlement, and another member of Olmert's Cabinet was sentenced to four years for taking bribes. Israel's former ceremonial president, Moshe Katsav, is being tried on rape and sexual harassment charges, while a longtime Olmert aide has been charged with illegal wiretapping, fraud and breach of trust.
As Olmert's hearing was under way, Moshe Negbi, a prominent Israeli legal analyst, said Israel could be proud of its judiciary.
"I think the test of a country governed by the rule of law is not if there is or isn't corruption, but if it has the capacity to fight that corruption," Negbi said. "If police and prosecutors in Israel aren't afraid to investigate a prime minister, that's a badge of honor."
A veteran politician known less as a statesman than as an expert backroom dealmaker, Olmert was catapulted unexpectedly into the country's top job when a stroke incapacitated his predecessor, Ariel Sharon. Sharon had also faced corruption allegations but was never indicted.
Olmert's time in office was marked by an inconclusive war in Lebanon in 2006 and an offensive in Gaza early this year aimed at halting years of Palestinian rocket fire. The Gaza war, which has succeeded in bringing about a rare period of quiet on the Israel-Gaza border, has also drawn charges that Israel used disproportionate force and did not do enough to avoid civilian casualties.
While prime minister, Olmert also held peace talks with the Palestinians and indirect talks with Syria.
Since leaving office, Olmert has said he offered the Palestinians a deal that would have seen Israel cede about 93.5 percent of the West Bank, along with Israeli territory to make up for the 6.5 percent of the West Bank land that Israel would retain. He also proposed international administration of east Jerusalem's most sensitive holy sites.
The Palestinians sought more West Bank land and demanded Palestinian sovereignty over a disputed hilltop compound that is home to Islam's third-holiest site, according to officials familiar with the talks. Palestinians say the proposals were under discussion when the talks were upended by the Gaza war and by Olmert's downfall. Negotiations have been frozen since Olmert left office.
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