Ehud Olmert Exits Stage Right, But His Very Bad Idea Remains

AP Photo/Dan Balilty

Former Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, April 18, 2013.

Ehud Olmert is over. The judge who sentenced Israel's former prime minister to six years in prison has struck the final sledgehammer blow to Olmert's reputation and his comeback chances. Ironically, at the same political moment, what may have been the most irresponsible policy proposal of Olmert's career is enjoying a renaissance: the idea that Israel should unilaterally draw a new border in the West Bank, ignoring the Palestinians.

Olmert was convicted of accepting bribes as Jerusalem mayor to help win approval for a monstrous set of apartment towers known (even in Hebrew) as the Holyland. Last week, handing down an unusually stiff sentence by Israeli standards, Judge David Rozen described a bribe-taking official as "a traitor." Even were Olmert to win an appeal and survive new witness-tampering allegations, the daydream of running again for prime minister is out of reach.

Meanwhile, though, peace talks have collapsed. Israel still rules over the disenfranchised Palestinians of the West Bank; and international pressure is rising. So prominent politicians and experts are proposing that Israel redraw its border, keeping some or all settlements and imposing a new map by fiat. They don't mention that Olmert won the 2006 election on this platform. And they don't notice the common element of Olmert's corruption and his unilateralism: hubris.

A measure of megalomania, to be fair, is necessary in leaders. If you realistically evaluate your human abilities and limits, you won't want to run a city, much less a nation. You'll think: How am I so sure I'll know what to say when the phone rings at 3 a.m.? But we need leaders— which is to say, men and women who have a unrealistic view of themselves. Such people, alas, are also at risk for believing that they deserve to live better than their salaries allow, and for overconfidence with armies. In democracies, we try to control megalomania with laws and constitutional limits, and with the expectation that hubris be harnessed to some ideal—that the politician wants to accomplish something besides self-aggrandizement.


Olmert was precociously elected to parliament at 28, representing the Likud. It was a family business; his father had been in the Knesset. He inherited a political faith including Israel's eternal right to the land it conquered in 1967. He was, in hindsight, more of a climber than an ideologue. After the Likud's electoral defeat in 1992 cost him his cabinet post, he ran for mayor of Jerusalem and won. He had a large smile. He was an engaging man to meet in a millionaire's living room, if you didn't have an aversion to glad-handing. The impression that he was abroad more often than he was in the mayor's office wasn't quite true, but it wasn't far off. The city decayed. He was acquitted in 1997 of fraud charges connected to campaign fundraising. He was a smart enough lawyer, it seemed, to stay a centimeter within the law. A bribery investigation petered out in 2004.

By then, he was back in national politics as Ariel Sharon's deputy prime minister. And in 2003, he had announced a political vision, which may have surprised him as much as anyone: Israel couldn't continue ruling the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians would stop demanding a state and start demanding the vote.

But he didn't believe Israel could negotiate a two-state agreement and a new border with the Palestinians—at least not a border he could accept. Instead, he said, Israel needed to pull out of the Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank, to a line it would choose on its own. It would keep the major settlements. Palestinians would simply accept this. They'd create a state, and the threat of Israel's military power would keep this state tame. "We won't allow for there to be tanks there," he said.

Soon after, Prime Minister Sharon announced plans for the 2005 unilateral "disengagement" from Gaza. In the next election, Sharon created a new party promising a partial pullout from the West Bank. It was Olmert's platform, and when Sharon suffered a stroke, Olmert ran on that platform and won. He was passionate. He was also utterly overconfident in Israel's ability to end a conflict without an agreement. To the Israeli public, he offered a salesman's pitch: You can have what you want for cheap. Peace, and the settlements too.

In the summer of 2006, Olmert launched a month-long war in Lebanon against the Shi'ite organization Hezbollah. The haste in going to war and Israel's losses shattered Olmert's popularity. Less noticed, the war in Lebanon and the Hamas takeover of Gaza the next year cracked his belief in unilateralism. It turned out that Israel's military deterrent wasn't enough to maintain quiet on the borders without peace agreements. It turned out that neither he nor Israel were omnipotent.

At last, Olmert began serious negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He was willing to make compromises he'd once rejected. The two sides made progress. But by then the police were investigating most of Olmert's past. Finally, as criminal allegations mounted, he announced he was quitting. There's an element of tragedy here: By the time Olmert harnessed his confidence to a reasonable goal, he was too stained to get there. The talks stalled as Abbas waited to negotiate with a prime minister who wasn't a lame duck. Instead he got Benjamin Netanyahu, a prime minister willing to negotiate only if he could be could avoid reaching a deal.


Which bring us to the present. The talks are over; Netanyahu has successfully evaded an agreement. In the pause that comes after, we can hear the confident voices again proposing that Israel draw borders as it sees fit. Amos Yadlin, ex-head of military intelligence and now director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, recently published a position paper saying that Israel needs a "strategy for moving toward a reality of two states…without giving the Palestinian side a veto over the process." Yadlin doesn't specify where the "more legitimate border that will reduce world criticism" of Israel would run. But his goal is both to end Israeli rule over Palestinians and to hold onto land as a bargaining chip for future talks. He also implies that Israel's military must stay along the Jordan River. For reasons he doesn't explain, he expects that the Palestinian side will engage in "tactical coordination" to maintain quiet.

On the hard right, politicians such as Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party propose that Israel begin unilateral annexation of Area C—the large chunks of the West Bank where the settlements are located. Bennett would offer Israeli citizenship to the rural relatively small Palestinian population in those areas. This is a PR ploy: Israel would say it has given equality to everyone under its direct rule. The rest of the West Bank's Palestinians would be left with the enclaves between the annexed land. Who, outside of the Israeli right, will believe this rebranding?

The ideas aren't new, but their proponents are rushing to promote them after the breakdown of diplomacy. Even the most dovish suggest that the government can relocate Israelis from isolated settlements into "large settlement blocs"—as if the borders of those blocs were obvious and their annexation by Israel a foregone conclusion.

What all these ideas share is an overdose of self-confidence. They express Olmertian hubris. But the Olmert story is over. The only thing to be salvaged from it is his recognition, much too late, that power has limits.


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