Arrests over Israeli project

The Holyland Park apartment project, its massive towers strung together on a hill, has long been a source of controversy in Jerusalem, where the tradition has been for buildings to flow with the natural contour.

Environmentalists and some city officials objected fiercely, but the project was nonetheless approved, and 14 years later, many Jerusalem residents still call the buildings “The Monsters.”

Architectural taste isn’t criminal. But new details of a corruption scandal stemming from the deal suggest that real crimes may have been committed and possibly explain how the project gained approval despite widespread objection.

Five people were arrested Wednesday in what police allege was a bribery scheme involving the real estate deal. Among those taken into custody was attorney Uri Messer, a past confidant of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was mayor of Jerusalem when the project was first approved in 1996.

Olmert is on trial on separate corruption charges that ended his premiership and forced early elections. Messer is a prosecution witness in a case involving Olmert. On Thursday, an Israeli judge suspended the Olmert trial for a month after the former prime minister’s attorney Eli Zohar argued that the new arrests were having a negative effect on Olmert’s ability to receive a fair trial.

Olmert has not been named or questioned in the new scandal this week.

Another of the five arrested was Uri Sheetrit, Jerusalem city engineer from 2001 to ’06. He is suspected of accepting bribes to drop his objection to the project, help with its promotion and increase the number of apartments allowed on the land.

Hilel Cherny, former owner of the land that the project was built on, was also among those arrested.

Authorities allege that those arrested were involved in bribery, obstruction of justice and money laundering. The suspects’ attorneys have denied the allegations.

“Mega Corruption” was the main headline Thursday of Israel Today, a daily Hebrew free sheet.

Police this week also raided the offices of Polar, the investment company that built the project, as well as Jerusalem municipal offices.

The inquiry, carried out by the police’s national fraud investigation unit, started seven months ago and went public with the raids on the suspects’ houses and related offices.

Zohar said Thursday in court that he had “seen many cases that started loud but ended softly” and that he had faith it would be the situation here too.

Sobelman is a news assistant in The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau.