Ehud the Semi-Believer

Ehud Olmert has begun to fascinate me. Don't misunderstand: I am completely innocent of ever voting for him. I have no intent of committing such an act in the future. Had fate not put me in a country of which Olmert is prime minister at a moment that might be seized by someone else, an actual leader, to make peace, my interest in him would be purely as a literary figure, a character. I don’t mean that he is a tragic hero; precisely the point is that he lacks grandeur. He is Willy Loman with a vision: a glad-handing hack politician who was ambushed one day by a truth. Half of that truth scares him so much that every time it calls, he tells his secretary to tell it that he's in a meeting.

At the Annapolis peace conference last week, Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas agreed to "make every effort to conclude an agreement" resolving all issues and resulting in full peace "before the end of 2008." Their joint statement was read out loud by George W. Bush, making a very rare cameo in Mideast peace efforts. Let's leave aside Bush and Abbas for now. Bush is a badly written character, shallow and one-dimensional. Abbas, who inherited Yasser Arafat's job but not a scrap of his popularity, deserves a treatment of his own.

Speaking at the summit, Olmert said that "the reality created in our region in 1967 will change significantly." The "reality" created in 1967 is occupation and Israeli rule over the Palestinians. If the point wasn't clear, he told the daily Ha'aretz that without a two-state solution, Israel would face "a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights" for Palestinians in the occupied territories, and that Diaspora Jews would turn against the Jewish state. This sounds like a man eager to end the occupation.

Then he came home, convened the cabinet, and said that the deadline of the end of next year is a mere hope. "There is no commitment to a specific timetable regarding these negotiations," he said (link to Hebrew text). In other words, talks could go on forever; the process could replace arriving at an agreement. Israel, he said, did not need to do anything until "all of the Roadmap commitments are met," code words for the Palestinian Authority enforcing a total end to attacks on Israel. Yes, the 2003 "roadmap" to peace also obligates Israel to remove illegal settlement outposts. As I write, there is no indication that Olmert is rushing to do that.

One more news item, absolutely Olmertesque, requires mention: Just after he arrived home, the head of the national police's fraud squad recommended closing an investigation of the prime minister for trying to fix the sale of a state-owned bank so that a friend could buy it. The State Prosecutor's Office has since said the case remains open. There are two other criminal investigations of Olmert at the moment -- one involving buying a home at a discount that could have been a bribe from a developer; the other involving political appointments when he was trade minister. Olmert has been investigated several times before, even if charged and tried only once. In 1996 he was indicted on conspiracy and fraud charges connected to a campaign-financing scandal. The next year he was acquitted, though censured by the judge. Other cases have been closed for lack of evidence. For years, he has been under suspicion. Living, so far, a millimeter within the law, he reeks of the tawdriness of the zoning board and the lobbyist's lunch.

Olmert was born into politics. His father, Mordechai Olmert, supported the far-right Irgun underground before Israeli independence and later served as a member of parliament for Menachem Begin's Herut (Freedom) party, forerunner of the right-wing Likud. In 1973, at age 28, Ehud Olmert was elected to the Knesset on the Likud ticket. Afterward, he exploited the young country's lack of conflict-of-interest laws, opened a law practice while in parliament, and became wealthy. Though always on the side of Israel politics that opposed giving up an inch of occupied territory, he switched factions and mentors shamelessly. His real ideology appeared to be Ehud Olmert.

When the Likud lost power to Yitzhak Rabin's Labor party in 1993, Olmert switched to municipal politics, cut a deal with Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox political bosses, and got elected mayor. Streets got dirtier, young people left the city, and the mayor incessantly flew around the world. When he returned to national politics in 2003, he barely made it into parliament. But by now he was a crony of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who appointed him vice prime minister. When Sharon suffered his stroke in January 2006, the hack became prime minister.

By then, though, Olmert had been visited by an Idea. I suspect that he himself would have been less surprised if he had discovered he was pregnant. In newspaper interviews in late 2003, Olmert announced his vision: Israel needed to pull out of most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Otherwise Palestinians in occupied territory would demand the right to vote in Israeli elections. Since Palestinians were on the verge of becoming the majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, Israel would cease being a Jewish state. "I shudder to think that liberal Jewish organizations that shouldered the burden of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa will lead the struggle against us," Olmert said. This comment was a psychological gambit: He assigned to liberal Jews elsewhere the piece of the idea too terrible to say in his own name.

Admittedly, this wasn't a new idea. Founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion rejected conquering the West Bank in 1949 for this reason; Olmert even quoted him. Some Labor politicians made the same argument as soon as Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967. Olmert was a very slow student, but once he caught on, he was convinced.

Well, sort of. An agreement with the Palestinians, he said in December 2003, was out of the question, because it would necessarily look something like the unofficial Geneva Accord, requiring a return virtually to the pre-1967 borders. The need for a negotiated peace was the part of his own big idea that Olmert did not want to face. His initial solution to that dilemma was a unilateral withdrawal to lines of Israel's choosing, leaving the major settlements in Israeli hands.

Last summer's war erased all public support for that proposal, along with Olmert's popularity. A unilateral pullout would mean continued conflict, with Palestinian groups firing rockets into Israeli cities. Olmert began negotiating with Abbas. The pace picked up after Hamas seized control of Gaza and Abbas formed a new government in the West Bank.

In a world of Olmert's own design, Abbas would agree to peace based on a partial Israeli pullback, more or less to the "security barrier" in the West Bank. Even with immense American pressure, Abbas will not agree to this. No Palestinian will. Olmert knows this, he said so four years ago, and does not want to know he knows this. Even if he was willing to agree to something resembling Geneva Accord, he does not have the political support to carry the deal in the public and parliament. Someone else, the kind of leader who leads, a Yitzhak Rabin perhaps, might trust his ability to speak and convince and have people follow him. So far in his long political career, Olmert has not been able to do this. He is caught between his idea and its consequences, between his idea and his abilities.

As a literary character, uncertain, unpredictable, he is fascinating. Unfortunately, he is prime minister. The next chapter of history depends at least partly on him. Living where I do, I consider pessimism a luxury, but I have a hard time believing that the chronicle of Ehud Olmert will have a happy ending. I would deeply like to be surprised.

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