Ehud Olmert is an Israeli politician and statesman who served as the 17th Prime Minister of Israel from 2006 to 2009.
Olmert was born on September 30, 1945, in the town of Binyamina during the British Mandate period over Palestine. His parents had emigrated to the area in the hope of building a Jewish state and his father later went on to serve in the Knesset for the Herut party.
Drafted into the Golani infantry brigade of the IDF, Olmert served as a combat soldier until getting injured and, after treatment and rehab, he became a military correspondent for the IDF journal Bamachane. A lawyer by profession, he holds B.A. and LL.B. degrees in Psychology, Philosophy and Law from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Olmert was first elected to the Eighth Knesset in 1973 at the age of 28 as part of the Likud political party. In that Knesset he was especially active on the issue of organized crime in Israel. After his first post, Olmert was reelected to the Knesset seven consecutive times. Between 1981 and 1989, he served as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and served on the Finance, Education and Defense Budget Committees. He served as Minister without Portfolio, responsible for minority affairs between 1988 and 1990, and as Minister of Health from 1990 until 1992.
Following Likud’s loss in the 1992 elections, Olmert decided to run for Mayor of Jerusalem against the longtime mayor, Teddy Kollek. In November 1993, Olmert was successfully elected mayor and became the first Likud member to serve in the post. He continued to serve simultaneously as a member of Knesset but subsequently resigned his position in the parliament in 1998 after a law was passed making it impossible to serve in both functions.
Olmert served as Jerusalem’s mayor until 2003 when he was elected to the sixteenth Knesset. A close friend and confidant of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Olmert was immediately appointed as Minister of Industry and Trade, and Deputy Prime Minister by Sharon. Olmert became an influential member of the Cabinet and was one of the first to advocate a withdrawal from Gaza, changing from his prior stances on territorial withdrawal that he endorsed both following the Six-Day War in 1967 and in the buildup to the Oslo peace process. The Gaza pullout idea that was ultimately endorsed by Prime Minister Sharon and was carried out as the disengagement plan in August 2005.
When party member Benjamin Netanyahu resigned from the government in reaction to the disengagement plan, Olmert was appointed acting minister of finance, a position he took over formally in November 2005.
On January 4, 2006, Sharon suffered a massive stroke that left him unable to perform his duties as prime minister. On January 5, Olmert was given acting prime ministerial duties to keep the government running effectively in Sharon’s absence. Also, on January 5, Olmert held his first cabinet meeting to signal the transfer of power. Olmert remained acting Prime Minister until the Israeli elections, which took place on March 28, 2006.
Following elections to the 17th Knesset as head of the Kadima party, Ehud Olmert became Prime Minister of the 31st Government of Israel. He also took over the Social Welfare portfolio which was later given to Isaac Herzog of the Labor party.
As Prime Minister, Olmert began to vociferously campaign for a second disengagement, this time from the West Bank, and he stated this desire in May 2006 when he spoke before a joint session of the U.S. Congress in Washington, DC. His plan, though, would never see fruition, mostly because of the outbreak of war in the summer of 2006.
On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah terrorists infiltrated Israeli territory on the border with Lebanon, attacked an IDF patrol and kidnapped two soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Though he immediately ordered artillery fire and air strikes inside Lebanese territory, Olmert balked at starting a war and only sent ground troops over the border a week later when he officially launched the Second Lebanon War.
Following the end of the war in August 2006 - an end which was viewed as a major setback for Israel as they were unable to rescue their soldiers or completely dispel the threat from Hezbollah - Olmert’s popularity began to drop significantly inside Israel. Many officials and military leaders, including former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, called on Olmert to resign his post. On May 2, 2007, the Winograd Commission, established to review the Second Lebanon War, accused Olmert of failing to properly manage the war, which prompted a mass rally of over 100,000 Israeli’s who called for his resignation.
In November 2007, Olmert accepted President Bush‘s invitation to the Annapolis peace conference where he declared Israel’s intention to continue negotiations with the Palestinians about all issues, including the repatriation of Palestinian refugees. After the conference little headway was tangibly made for peace.
From the end of 2006 until the end of 2008, Olmert held 36 negotiating sessions with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to reach a peace agreement. Ultimately, Abbas rejected the plan, which would have created a Palestinian state in roughly 94% of the West Bank.
In July 2008, Olmert announced his intention to resign from his post following the next general election, which many pundits saw as a response to the charges of corruption and bribery that had been brought against him in 2007 and early 2008. He resigned on September 21, 2008. Though Tzipi Livni was subsequently elected as prime minister, she was unable to form a majority coalition and therefore Olmert remained in the post until the next elections, scheduled for February 2009.
In November 2008, Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz indicted Olmert for corruption and bribery charges in a case that became known as the “Rishon-Tours” affair.
Meanwhile, as Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza against southern Israel continued Olmert finally ordered the launch Operation Cast Lead which was a major ground invasion of the territory with the stated objective of ending rocket attacks and stopping Hamas’ ability to smuggle weaponry into Gaza. Olmert, who had delivered a personal, last-minute warning to Gaza to end the rocket fire, felt the need for a military invasion: “We’ve said that if there is rocket fire against the south of the country, there will be a severe and disproportionate Israeli response to the fire on the citizens of Israel and its security forces,” Olmert said.
On January 17, 2009, Olmert addressed the nation and declared a unilateral Israeli cease-fire in Gaza. He also announced that an agreement was worked out with the United States through which a framework was supposedly created to help stop weapons smuggling from Egypt into Gaza.
In September 2009, the trial on the charges of corruption, fraud, breach of trust, falsifying documents and tax evasion filed in 2008 was initiated in Israeli court. On July 10, 2012, Olmert was acquitted of the central corruption charges levied against him. A number of Knesset members, including Yoel Hasson and Yuval Zellner, welcomed the ruling and publicly called on Olmert to return to politics. While the former-Prime Minister was released of corruption and fraud charges, the court found him guilty on breach of trust.
On May 13, 2014, Tel Aviv District Court found Olmert guilty for two counts of bribery in the “Holyland” case and sentenced the former Prime Minister to six years in prison, a fine of 1 million shekels and also ordered authorities to seize 500,000 shekels in funds accumulated by Olmert. The imprisonment was delayed until September 2014, giving Olmert’s lawyers time to file an appeal on the conviction and sentencing to the Israeli Supreme Court. Olmert began accusing his former secretary, Shula Zaken, of the crimes he had been convicted of. In December 2014, Zaken entered into evidence tape-recordings that revealed Olmert had offered to pay her $10,000 for each month she would serve in jail for taking the blame in the Holyland case. Olmert was convicted of obstruction of justice in February 2016, for convincing Zaken not to testify, or cut a deal during the Holyland trial.
Thanks to the testimony of American businessman Morris “Moshe” Talansky, Olmert was convicted of fraud and breach of trust in March 2015. These charges represented the third time that Olmert had been convicted of corruption charges since 2012. Talansky testified that he had provided Olmert with over $150,000 in cash and over $600,000 total from 1992 to 2005. Olmert held the position of Minister of Industry and Trade at the time. Talansky also testified that most of the money was explicitly earmarked for election campaigns, with the rest being for personal expenses. In May 2015 Olmert was sentenced to 8 months in prison and fined $25,700 for taking cash bribes from Talansky.
Olmert posted a video online asserting his innocence on February 15, 2016, and then left his home to begin serving his 27-month sentence. Olmert is the first Israeli Prime Minister to serve time in prison, after he was found guilty of taking bribes from real estate developers to build a huge luxury apartment complex, and accepting campaign contributions from Talansky in exchange for favors while he served as Mayor of Jerusalem. He was sent to Maasiyahu prison in Ramle and was kept separate from the general prison population.
Olmert was released from prison on July 2, 2017, after serving 16 months.
He is married to his wife Aliza, with four children.
Sources: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
“Profile: Ehud Olmert,” BBC News Profile;
“Kadima MKs back Olmert's return to politics,” Jerusalem Post, (July 10, 2012);
Bob, Yonnah Jeremy. “Court sentences Olmert to 6 months in prison, first Israeli PM to ever go behind bars,” Jerusalem Post, (May 13, 2014);
Kershner, Isabel. “Ehud Olmert, ex-Israeli premier, is sentenced to 8 months in jail,” The New York Times (May 25, 2015)
Bob, Yonah Jeremy. “Judge may toss Olmert plea bargain in surprise decision over secret tapes,” Jerusalem Post (February 2, 2016);
Eglash, Ruth/Booth, William. “Former Israeli prime minister Olmert starts 19-month jail sentence,” Washington Post (February 15, 2016);
Faith Karimi and Ian Lee, “Former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert released from prison,” CNN, (July 2, 2017).