Israel's Olmert denies wrongdoing as he heads to prison

AP , Monday 15 Feb 2016

File Photo: Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speaks to the media after a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, in this December 29, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

Israel's former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a last-minute plea to salvage his legacy on Monday, appealing to Israelis to remember his peace-making attempts as leader and denying any wrongdoing in the bribery charges against him just hours before he headed to prison.

Olmert, 70, is set to report to Israel's Maasiyahu prison later Monday to begin a 19-month prison sentence for bribery and obstruction of justice. He will become the first Israeli leader to be imprisoned.

In a three and a half minute video released by his office and filmed at his residence a day earlier, a weary-looking Olmert said it was a "painful and strange" time for him and his family. He said he was paying a "heavy" price, but added that he accepted the sentence because "no man is above the law."

"At this hour it is important for me to say again ... I reject outright all the corruption allegations against me," Olmert said in the footage. He said that in hindsight, the Israeli public might view the charges against him and the seven-year legal saga that enveloped him in a "balanced and critical way."

"I hope that then many will recognize that during my term as prime minister honest and promising attempts were made to create an opening for hope and a better future of peace, happiness and well-being," he said.

Olmert left his residence outside of Jerusalem early on Monday, accompanied by a police car. A large crowd of reporters had gathered outside the home, waiting for him to emerge as he headed to the prison in central Israel.

Olmert was convicted in March 2014 in a wide-ranging case that accused him of accepting bribes to promote a controversial real-estate project in Jerusalem. The charges pertained to a period when he was mayor of Jerusalem and trade minister, years before he became prime minister in 2006, a point he reiterated in his video statement Monday.

He was initially sentenced to six years in the case, but Israel's Supreme Court later upheld a lesser charge, reducing the sentence to 18 months. That was extended by a month earlier this year for pressuring a confidant not to testify in multiple legal cases against him.

Olmert is also awaiting a ruling in an appeal in a separate case, in which he was sentenced to eight months in prison for unlawfully accepting money from a U.S. supporter.

He was forced to resign in early 2009 amid the corruption allegations, which undermined the last serious round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and cleared the way for hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu's rise to power.

Olmert led his government to the Annapolis peace conference in November 2007 — launching more than a year of ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians.

Olmert has said he made unprecedented concessions to the Palestinians during those talks — including a near-total withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and an offer to place Jerusalem's Old City under international control — and was close to reaching an agreement at the time of his resignation.

*This story was edited by Ahram Online.

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