A dramatic, prime-time televised announcement that he would resign as prime minister after his Kadima Party held primaries in September signals the end of Olmert’s political career.
While tragedies originated in neighboring Greece, Ehud Olmert’s fate can definitely be viewed as an Israeli tragedy.
He began his life as an outsider–a “prince,” as it’s known in the Israeli jargon, of a leading right-wing Revisionist family (his father, Mordechai, was a member of the 3rd and 4th Knesset for the Herut Party). When David Ben-Gurion and his social democratic Mapai party reigned supreme in the first decades of the state, he declared that every party was a candidate for a coalition government “except for Herut and Maki” (the Communists). In those days, Ben-Gurion even refused to mention the name of Herut leader Menachem Begin, always referring to him as “the man sitting next to Member of Knesset Yohanan Bader.”
Thus, when the young Hebrew University student Ehud Olmert met his fellow student and future wife, Aliza, who came from a Communist family, it was a meeting of outcasts. They have apparently managed a successful marriage over the years, despite the fact that Aliza and all of their four children have remained on the left. Olmert has even admitted that discussions around the family table have influenced his views.
Beginning with his student days, Olmert was a political animal. At 22 he dared to challenge Begin, the perennial leader of the right, saying that he was a failure for having lost so many election campaigns and should step aside. At 28, he teamed with another young Knesset Member, Yossi Sarid, to fight criminal influences in Israeli life. As he rose in the ranks, Olmert became known as an articulate spokesperson for the Revisionist view, a dedicated supporter of Greater Israel and the right of Israel to annex the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. As mayor of Jerusalem he was firmly committed to the concept of a united city as the eternal capital of the Jewish people.
Somewhere along the line, Olmert’s views began to change. Most likely it wasn’t the discussions around the dinner table but rather the demographic factor that profoundly influenced his outlook. In early 2002, Professor Arnon Sofer, a specialist in demography and geography, sent an urgent letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in which he warned that by the year 2020 the ratio of Jews to Arabs in the combined area of the State of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, both East and West, would be 55 percent Arab and 45 percent Jewish. Sofer’s conclusion was that if Israel wanted to remain a Jewish and democratic state it would have to give up most of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and leave East Jerusalem to a future Palestinian state. As deputy prime minister, Olmert was clearly aware of these ideas.
In 2003 Olmert gave an interview to Ha’aretz editor David Landau in which he stated, “There is no doubt in my mind that very soon the government of Israel is going to have to address the demographic issue with the utmost seriousness and resolve. This issue above all others will dictate the solution that we must adopt.” He added that his formula was “to maximize the number of Jews; to minimize the number of Palestinians; not to withdraw to the 1967 border and not to divide Jerusalem.” He said that he preferred a negotiated solution, but didn’t believe it was possible at that time.