Ehud Olmert, whose indictment and resignation in 2008 aborted his peace negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and opened the way to the deadlock under Benjamin Netanyahu, was found not guilty this morning by the Jerusalem District Court of the main corruption charges that forced his resignation. And aborted the negotiations.
The three-judge panel, which read aloud a summary of its 700-page verdict, found that the charges had not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. News 1 reports that the detailed ruling expresses serious doubt about the nature of the charges and the reliability of some key witnesses, making it unlikely that the prosecution could win on appeal.
Olmert was charged with setting up a double billing system through Rishontours travel agency in order to get double reimbursement from overseas groups that invited him as a guest speaker. He was also charged with receiving envelopes of cash from Long Island fundraiser Morris Talansky in what were portrayed as bribes for undetermined purposes. The judges ruled that there was no proof Olmert was aware of the double billing in the Rishontours case, and that no effort was made to hide the activity, which cast doubt on the likelihood of fraudulent intent. Olmert had maintained his complete innocence all along.
The bottom line appears to be that the prime minister was forced from office for nothing. And because he resigned, Palestinian leader Abbas held off replying to Olmert’s last negotiating offer, expecting to resume the negotiations with the new Israeli government once the dust had settled. But once the dust had settled and Israel had elected a new prime minister, the new prime minister didn’t want to resume negotiations where they left off. He called that “preconditions.” He wanted to start again from zero.
It’s been pretty thoroughly documented that Olmert and Abbas had reached agreement on most key points except for the question of Palestinian refugees’ right of return. Olmert transmitted his final offer to Abbas in September 2008 with an offer to accept a symbolic “return” totaling 5,000 refugees. The Palestine Papers leaked to Al-Jazeera, apparently notes from the Palestinian negotiating team, show that Abbas called the 5,000 figure “a joke.” They also showed that Abbas told his team Israel could not be expected to receive an unlimited number, since that would be the end of the Jewish state. A final PLO negotiating memo (which I’ve seen, in both its Arabic and English forms) says that the Palestinians demand that Israel accept 150,000 refugees. It’s safe to assume that if the negotiations had continued, the final figure would have been somewhere between those two figures - 5,000 and 150,000. But the negotiations didn’t continue.
Conventional wisdom has it that negotiations in the Middle East are unsafe because you never know whether the government you’re negotiating with is going to be there next year. That’s supposed to refer to the Arab side, but so far none of the Arab governments that have reached agreements with Israel have trashed them. Not even the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. On the other hand, Israeli governments negotiating with the PLO have disintegrated once by assassination, once through a coalition collapsing (Barak in 2001) and once through what turn out to be phony corruption charges. I’m not saying there’s a pattern here or anything…
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).