By Anat Shalev
JERUSALEM, May 13 (Xinhua) -- History was written on Tuesday at the Tel Aviv District Court as Israeli former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced to six years in prison for graft charges, becoming the first former prime minister to be sentenced to jail time in Israel.
Olmert, who resigned from his post in 2008 after corruption allegations surfaced against him, was found guilty last month of receiving a bribe of 560,000 shekels (160,000 U.S. dollars) while serving as mayor of Jerusalem in exchange for illegally expediting the Holyland construction project and circumventing bureaucracy.
The harsh sentence, which was accompanied by an official ban prohibiting him from running for political office for seven years after finishing his prison term, marks the end of Olmert's political career and may signal a milestone in the fight waged by legal authorities against corruption.
Experts believe the harsh punishment was set to deter public officials from committing similar crimes, at a time when the Israeli public's trust in politicians is at a low.
Yeoshua Reznik, a former deputy attorney general who served 25 years, told Xinhua that he believed Olmert's sentencing was too harsh, considering the evidence presented in the case, the relatively low sum of money involved, and the lighter sentence of three and a half years in prison received by Hilell Cherney, the project's developer and "the engine" of the bribery operation.
"The judge chose to give the maximum sentence allowed by law, which is pretty rare in bribery trials," Reznik said.
"This sentencing is a decision to raise the threshold of punishment for corruption trials. Judge Rozen expressed his view that public corruption should be uprooted and should not be tolerated and that the authorities must battle it. The main goal of this severe punishment is to deter politicians from carrying out similar offenses."
But Reznik said he is not comfortable with the judge's comments that a person who received bribes is "a traitor," stressing that there needs to be some "balance."
For the Israeli public, political corruption has been a big concern in recent years and was one of the topics on the agenda during the mass social justice protests in 2011.
Corruption is widespread in Israel at the municipal level. In recent years more than 60 public servants in municipalities were investigated for possible involvement in bribery charges. Currently six former mayors are in different stages of trials on corruption charges.
Most of the charges, like in Olmert's case, involve bribes in exchange for expediting real-estate procedures. The phenomenon is widespread on the municipality level due to a heavy government bureaucracy that can delay construction projects for years and cost developers large amounts of money.
"It seems like (with the convictions in recent years) the fight against corruption has marked major victories, with Olmert being the highlight of this process," said Doron Nevot, an expert on corruption from the Haifa University Political Science department. "However, I think this is just appearance."
He argued that attorney generals and other leaders known for fighting white-collar crimes are being replaced by less aggressive and assertive officials who are less likely to pursue graft and bribery allegations.
Nevot said that current comptroller Yosef Shapira is not doing enough to end corruption.
"The fight against corruption does not seem to be at the top of his agenda. It's true he is more interested in a fight for social rights at the moment, which is also very important, but it's also very convenient for the politicians that this is the case," he said. "Unfortunately, I don't feel the situation will get better anytime soon."