Israel's ex-PM Olmert gets light sentence

By Associated Press | September 24, 2012 | 12:35 PM EDT

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, right, stands by his former aid Shula Zaken he attends the sentence hearing in a corruption case, at Jerusalem's District Court, Monday, Sept. 24, 2012. Olmert cleared a major hurdle toward a possible return to politics on Monday, receiving an unexpectedly light sentence for his role in a corruption case that forced him from office. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, Pool)

JERUSALEM (AP) — A Jerusalem court on Monday ordered former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to pay a fine and serve a one-year suspended sentence for his role in a corruption case that forced him from office, a relatively light punishment that could clear the way for a political comeback.

Olmert, who had faced the possibility of jail time or community service, was ordered only to pay an $18,000 fine. By avoiding those stiffer penalties, the former leader is now eligible to run for parliament, though he remains barred from serving in a Cabinet post while he faces another corruption trial.

The 66-year-old Olmert has not said whether he wants to seek office again, but confidants say he is certainly considering it.

"I sense that many today among us need to see Olmert come back," Ronnie Bar-On, a political ally of the former premier, told Israel's Channel 2 TV. "It is now very clear to everyone that Prime Minister Olmert was removed from office against his will and unjustifiably so."

Olmert was deeply unpopular when he was forced from office, but he has enjoyed a comeback of sorts in recent months.

Many commentators have lamented the breakdown in Mideast peace efforts under the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and wondered whether Olmert, who conducted more than a year of intense negotiations with the Palestinians, might have delivered an agreement if he had not been driven from office.

In the coming months, Olmert will remain preoccupied with a separate trial for his alleged role in a Jerusalem real estate bribery case. Still, Monday's sentencing was a clear victory for the former premier.

"I walk out of here with my head held high," he told reporters.

Olmert was forced out of office nearly four years ago under the cloud of scandal, accused of accepting cash-stuffed envelopes from an American political supporter and allegedly double billing supporters for overseas trips.

But in July, the court cleared him of those serious allegations, convicting him only on the lesser charge of breach of trust for helping allocate government contracts to a friend's associates.

In its decision Monday, the court harshly scolded Olmert for his transgressions. "It was a very clear conflict of interest," the judge said. "It was a breach of trust, and we must relate to it in the harshest of terms."

Wearing a powder blue, button-down shirt, Olmert fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat as the sentence was read out. But afterward, with it clear that he had avoided a harsher sentence, he smiled and embraced his lawyers.

One of Olmert's attorneys, Navot Tel-Zur, said the case was "unprecedented" in forcing a sitting prime minister to resign. "He was cleared at the end of the day," he said, adding that any attempt by prosecutors to appeal would be seen as a "witch hunt."

Deputy State Prosecutor Eli Abarbanel told reporters that no decisions had been made on a possible appeal to the Supreme Court.

Olmert has claimed that he was on the brink of a historic agreement with the Palestinians at the time of his resignation.

Shortly after Olmert stepped down, Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu assumed power and Olmert's Kadima Party became the main opposition party.

The next Israeli elections are currently called for late next year, but there is widespread speculation that Netanyahu will push them forward because of his difficulties in passing the 2013 state budget.

Olmert is considered by many the only legitimate candidate who could unseat Netanyahu.

Israel's Channel 2 TV quoted Likud officials as saying Monday's verdict made early elections more likely, since if Netanyahu waits until the end of his term Olmert would have a better chance of returning to politics. If he moves them forward, Olmert may still be barred from running until his real estate bribery case is resolved.