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Former Israeli leader Olmert indicted on fraud charges

JERUSALEM - Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was indicted yesterday in a corruption scandal that forced him to resign last year.

JERUSALEM - Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was indicted yesterday in a corruption scandal that forced him to resign last year.

The long-anticipated legal step made him the first current or former holder of Israel's most powerful office to be charged with a crime.

The decision by Attorney General Menahem Mazuz will give Israelis a single judicial airing of three cases against Olmert that, along with other scandals involving senior government officials, have undermined public confidence in the country's politicians.

Olmert, 63, is accused of taking illegal cash payments from a wealthy American political supporter, double-billing for trips abroad, and steering government grants to clients of a close friend and former law partner.

In the most damaging allegation, Moshe Talansky, an American businessman and political supporter, testified last summer that he had funneled tens of thousands of dollars to Olmert in cash-stuffed envelopes to help him in four election campaigns.

He said some of that money had gone to upgrade Olmert's flight tickets and purchase luxury goods.

The allegations cover a 13-year period when Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem and minister of trade and industry, but they surfaced after he became prime minister in 2006 and weighed heavily on his capacity to lead.

Olmert became prime minister after then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke.

He was quickly embroiled in a war with the Lebanese Hezbollah militia that resulted in what, by Israeli standards, were unacceptable losses of troops and equipment. His management of the conflict was widely criticized and resulted in calls for him to step down.

In July 2008, Olmert announced he would not compete in a primary for the leadership of his Kadima Party.

Throughout his months as a lame duck, he continued pushing for a peace deal in negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, but the talks collapsed in December.

His decision to step down set the stage for a February election in which Israelis favored rightist parties, including the Likud faction of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over the centrist Kadima.

The 61-page indictment charges Olmert with fraud, breach of trust, falsification of corporate records, receipt of illicit benefits, and tax evasion. A fraud conviction alone could bring a five-year term.

Olmert insists he is the innocent target of biased prosecutors. His spokesman said a trial would vindicate him.

Israel's television announcers treated Olmert's indictment as an anticlimax, placing it on the evening-news lineup behind a major tycoon's financial troubles, the latest swine flu deaths, and negotiations to free an Israeli soldier held by Hamas.

Israelis are accustomed to shenanigans in high places.

In June, former Finance Minister Avraham Hirshson was sentenced to five years and five months for embezzlement, and former Health Minister Shlomo Benizri is serving a four-year term for bribery and fraud. Former President Moshe Katsav is on trial for rape.