JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli court on Monday convicted ex-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a high-profile bribery case, crushing his hopes for a political comeback and setting the stage for him to become the first Israeli premier to go to prison.
The verdict capped a four-decade political career that saw Olmert transform himself from a sharp-tongued backbencher into a global statesman whose push for peace with the Palestinians was cut short by his legal troubles.
"It's a sad day for my country," President Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate, said during an official visit to Austria.
Olmert was among 13 government officials, developers and businesspeople charged in three separate schemes related to a housing development in Jerusalem. The Israeli media described the case as the largest corruption scandal ever exposed in Israel.
According to the original 2012 indictment, millions of dollars illegally changed hands to promote a series of real estate projects, including the "Holyland" housing development, which required a radical change in zoning laws and earned the developers tax breaks and other benefits. The hilltop development, resembling a large fortress, is a frequent target of criticism because of its hulking appearance.
Olmert was charged for acts committed while he was mayor of Jerusalem and minister of industry and trade, years before he became prime minister. He was accused of taking bribes to push the project forward.
Olmert rejected all allegations of wrongdoing, and tried to portray a key witness, the late businessman Shmuel Dechner, as unreliable.
But in a stinging rebuke, Judge David Rozen dismissed Olmert's version. He "tried to get the court to tarnish (the name) of the state witness, at the price of telling lies in his testimony in court," Rozen wrote in his decision.
Olmert's aides said an appeal was likely. "We will study the case closely, and this is probably not the end," said Amir Dan, an Olmert confidant.
Sentencing is set for April 28. Legal experts said the conviction would almost certainly entail prison time — all but ending a long political career that has repeatedly been dogged by corruption allegations that, until Monday, had rarely stuck.
Olmert, 68, faces up to seven years in prison. And under Israeli law, he would have to wait at least seven more years after serving his sentence to run for office.
Even if he somehow wins an appeal, he has become so tainted that a comeback is virtually impossible, said Tamir Sheafer, a professor of political science at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.
"The ruling is so damaging politically that even if he is somehow exonerated, his career is over," he said. "He had to come out as pure as snow to carry on."