Ehud Olmert became the first current or past Israeli Prime Minister ever to go on trial on Friday, insisting in a Jerusalem courtroom that he is innocent of corruption allegations that drove him from office.
The allegations that haunted Mr. Olmert’s term, which ended earlier this year, gravely damaged Israelis’ faith in their leaders and hurt Mr. Olmert’s chances of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Entering the court, Mr. Olmert told reporters that he had been subjected to an “ordeal of slanders and investigations.”
“I come here as a man innocent of any crime, and I believe I will leave here as a man innocent of any crime,” said Mr. Olmert.
Israelis have become used to seeing public servants in court. Mr. Olmert’s former Finance Minister was sentenced in June to five years for embezzlement, and another member of his Cabinet was sentenced to four years for taking bribes. Israel’s former ceremonial President, Moshe Katsav, is being tried on rape and sexual harassment charges.
But seeing a man who was Prime Minister little over half a year ago entering court as a defendant seemed something of a landmark.
Mr. Olmert (63) left politics when his rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, became Prime Minister last March, and has largely been out of the public eye since then.
The charges facing Mr. Olmert include illegally accepting funds from an American supporter and double-billing Jewish groups for trips abroad. The formal charges include fraud and breach of trust. Israel’s Justice Ministry has not said what penalties Mr. Olmert could face, but the fraud charge alone could carry a prison term of up to five years.
The incidents in question date from his time as Jerusalem Mayor and later as a Cabinet Minister, but emerged after he was elected Prime Minister in 2006. Mr. Olmert eventually stepped down because of the allegations, triggering elections that led to the formation of the Netanyahu government currently in power.
The testimony of the American supporter, businessman Morris Talansky, who said he had given Mr. Olmert hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of it in envelopes stuffed with bills, helped galvanize public opinion, and in late 2008 Mr. Olmert announced he would step down.