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The Tragedy of Ehud Olmert | The Nation

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The Tragedy of Ehud Olmert

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Tel Aviv

About the Author

Hillel Schenker
Hillel Schenker, a Tel Aviv journalist, is a veteran commentator on Israeli-Arab affairs and co-editor of the Palestine...

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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.

When Sharon announced his intention to disengage from Gaza in February 2004, it was Olmert who raised the trial balloons before the public about the idea. When Sharon fell into a coma in January 2006, Olmert became the accidental prime minister. He had only been made deputy prime minister as compensation for the fact that he wasn't given the finance ministry (which went to Benjamin Netanyahu), but by law, the deputy replaces the PM when he becomes incapacitated.

When Sharon didn't recover, Olmert became the candidate of the new breakaway Kadima party that Sharon had formed after the 2005 disengagement. He ran on a platform calling for a continuation of the disengagement policy in the West Bank, using the term "convergence."

However, after the post-disengagement cycle of violence in the south, Olmert realized that further withdrawal from occupied territories could only be carried out via negotiations. He also realized that his original support for an undivided Jerusalem was not realistic, and began to support a formula that would enable the predominantly Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem to be part of a future Palestinian state.

When the new government was formed after the 2006 elections, with Olmert as prime minister and Sephardi Labor Party leader and sometimes Peace Now activist Amir Peretz as defense minister, Dr. Ron Pundak, one of the chief architects of the Oslo Accords and now director general of the Peres Center for Peace, said, "This is the best government we ever had in terms of the prospects for peace with the Palestinians." It had become clear to many members of the Israeli peace movement that the hardline "prince" of the Revisionist movement had undergone a genuine ideological transformation.

Olmert and Peretz then undermined that promise when they unwisely responded to the 2006 cross-border kidnapping by Lebanon's Hezbollah of two IDF soldiers by launching a war to get the soldiers back. About l50 Israeli deaths and more than 1,500 Lebanese deaths later, and after over 1 million Israelis had to evacuate their homes in the north to escape Katyusha missile fire, the war came to an end without the return of the soldiers, who, according to Israeli intelligence authorities, were already known to be dead.

Writer David Grossman (who lost a son in the final weekend of the war) declared at the annual memorial rally for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that Israel had "a hollow leadership." But, despite massive public disillusionment with his handling of the Lebanon war, Olmert's political skills enabled him to survive the postwar demonstrations and investigations. The Annapolis Conference, convened by President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in November 2007, revived the Israeli- Palestinian negotiations. And behind the scenes, back-channel negotiations between Israel and Syria led to public negotiations on the Syrian track, with the active mediation of Turkey. Israel under Olmert also agreed to a tahdiya (cease-fire) with Hamas in the south, mediated by the Egyptians, and a deal was negotiated with Hezbollah for the return of the bodies of the two soldiers.

Peace processes seemed to be breaking out all over.

This is where the other element of the Olmert tragedy comes into play. Olmert has great political intelligence, but he also lacks what respected commentator Ofer Shelach called "moral intelligence." Olmert became a victim of the unholy alliance between capital and politics, getting used to the high life, carrying out fundraising campaigns in a questionable manner and possibly siphoning off sums for his personal use. Incidentally, these are traits shared by his two rivals, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak.

This flaw made Olmert a prime target for attack from the right, which did everything possible to bring him down. Former big-bucks American Jewish supporter Morris Talansky suddenly appeared, giving evidence in a fundraising fraud case. Talansky had supported Olmert when he was mayor of Jerusalem, but now that Olmert's views on the conflict had changed, right-wing rabbis told the American fundraiser that it was "kosher" to turn against Olmert. Another American, Sheldon Adelson, considered the richest Jew in the world, founded a free daily called Yisrael Hayom (Israel Today), whose primary purpose was to undermine Olmert and to promote Netanyahu in his place.

The combination of Olmert's flaws and the attacks of his critics have brought him down, and with it the promise that accompanied the transformation of his views.

In the short term, Kadima will now choose between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni--whose political path from Likud princess to dove who sees reality as it is runs parallel to Olmert--and former IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, whose declarations on the need to attack his home country, Iran, recall the final scene in Stanley Kubrick's film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, when Slim Pickens rides off into the sunset hanging on to a nuclear bomb.

The name of the next prime minister of Israel may be in the hands of the 70,000 registered members of Kadima. They will choose between Livni--who is far more popular with the general public due to her clean, solid and pragmatic image and is the only politician given a chance to defeat Netanyahu in the general elections--and Mofaz, who has more political strength in the party but is considered a Netanyahu clone who would undermine the chances of Kadima as an independent party.

If either Livni or Mofaz is unable to form a government, there will be new elections after ninety days. Polls suggest that if elections were held today, Netanyahu would be the probable winner and would be able to form a right-wing government.

The only way that Kadima and Labor will be able to form the next government is if they can produce a meaningful diplomatic achievement. In the short term there is still a slight window of opportunity for achieving an Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement by the end of 2008, which could form the basis of the next election campaign, though most observers doubt whether it can be realized.

The joker in the picture is the fact that Olmert may continue as prime minister for another three, and possibly even six, months before he has to step down. In his resignation speech he said, "We are closer than ever to concrete understandings that will likely serve as a basis for agreements in our dialogues with both the Palestinians and the Syrians." And he added, "As long as I remain at my post I will not stop trying to continue to bring the negotiations between us and our neighbors to a successful conclusion that embodies hope."

Olmert may have arrived at his position due to accidental circumstances, but the twelfth prime minister of the state of Israel squandered a genuine opportunity to lead toward a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab relations. And that is a tragedy for all of us.

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