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A Middle East Peace 'Visionary': Tony Blair Steps In as Character Witness in Ex-Israeli Leader's Corruption Case

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been convicted of corruption twice, but international man of peace Tony Blair still rates him as a trustworthy guy.
May 5, 2015, 4:30pm
Photo by Ronen Zvulun/AP

Disgraced former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today presented a letter of character reference from Tony Blair in a desperate bid to avoid more jail time following his second conviction for accepting bribes while in public office.

Olmert is now waiting for sentencing to be delivered on May 25. He was convicted in March of accepting more than $150,000 from US business tycoon Morris Talansky, known as Moshe, for favors. The former prime minister was initially acquitted of the charges in 2012 after Talansky claimed the cash-filled envelopes he gave Olmert were for first-class trips abroad and luxury cigars, and not related to political or business deals. That decision was then reversed in a retrial after his assistant, Shula Zaken, provided evidence she had been offered money in exchange for not testifying against her boss.

In the surprise letter read out in Jerusalem District Court on Thursday, former British Prime Minister Blair described his relationship with Olmert as one "based on trust and friendship" and praised the work he had done in the Middle East to promote peace as "visionary."

Blair, who is widely accused of misleading British parliament over the decision to go to war in Iraq, was recently reported to be poised to step down from his role as a Middle East peace envoy. It was said he had poor relations with Palestinian Authority figures and that his business deals in the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf countries represented a conflict of interest in his position representing the United Nations, European Union, Russia, and the United States in the Middle East.

Related: Israel's anti-war activists feel increasingly threatened. Read more here.

Among the other letters of support for Olmert was one written by former Israel spy chief Meir Dagan, but the content of that document remained secret to the public under a gag order.

The former prime minister's adopted daughter also gave a tearful testimony of support in which she said Olmert had been like a father to her growing up and was someone she could "always talk to."

Olmert, who served at Israel's helm from 2006 to 2009, has already been sentenced to six years in a separate court case which found that he had accepted bribes in a multi-millionaire real estate deal that led to the development of the "Holyland" tower blocks — a looming apartment development on the outskirts of Jerusalem. However, the court ruled that the former prime minister would not start that sentence until verdicts had been reached in all the cases against him.

Israel ranks in the bottom-third of OECD countries for public perceptions of corruption and a 2013 survey by Transparency International found that 79 percent of Israelis saw political parties as either "corrupt" or "extremely corrupt." More than a dozen Israeli politicians have been convicted for bribery, fraud, embezzlement, and other corruption related charges over the last two decades, including three ministers. A case against 30 public officials and politicians connected to the party of Avigdor Liberman, Israel's outgoing foreign minister who has served various ministerial roles, is ongoing.

Lieberman, who previously worked as a bouncer in his native Moldova, has also come under scrutiny for his financial dealings and previously had a case against him for fraudulently appointing an ambassador thrown out of court.

Speaking about the Olmert case, which has taken several years to come to fruition, activists say that the delay in justice proves changes need to be made to Israel's legal system to ensure corrupt politicians are brought to justice faster. "It take a long time and several court cases get to this point, questions need to be asked about that," Eli Sulam, chief executive of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, told VICE News. "The system is far too lenient on political figures… It's clear you can't just have politicians running around receiving envelopes stuffed with cash and not declaring it."

In a final plea to judges on Thursday Olmert said he accepted the guilty verdict but pleaded for leniency in sentencing as he had already suffered "shame" as a punishment for his crime. "What do I say to my grandchild who hears bad things about me from his friend?" he asked.

The state has recommended that Olmert should receive an additional 13 to 18 months for his latest conviction on top his six-year sentence for the "Holyland" case.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem