Olmert will be remembered for little but scandal

Then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (right) meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem in April 2007. (MaanImages)


Ehud Olmert, who has handed over the Israeli premiership to Benjamin Netanyahu after three years heading the government, suffered a slow and public political demise.

The eight lame-duck months since his resignation have been spent energetically refashioning his image as a successful leader — the “Olmert myth,” as one commentator recently called it.

Humiliated in a war in Lebanon and buffeted by corruption scandals at home, Olmert is reported to believe he will one day make a political comeback like Netanyahu, who led the government in the late 1990s.

Certainly, Olmert was once known as the great survivor. Of the three figures who pushed the country into the disastrous Lebanon war in the summer of 2006, only he walked out of the wreckage still standing. But this time even his talents may be overwhelmed by the task of salvaging his reputation.

Olmert’s rapid rise in Israeli national politics — after a decade spent making his name as the hardline mayor of Jerusalem — took rivals in the Likud Party by surprise. Joining the Knesset or parliament in 2003, he quickly gained the ear of Ariel Sharon, who was then prime minister.

Once a vocal opponent of concessions to the Palestinians, Olmert underwent a political transformation that closely mirrored Sharon’s. Some analysts suggest that, in fact, it was Olmert who guided and shaped the prime minister’s thinking, reflected in his designation as Sharon’s heir in the new centrist party Kadima they would later establish.

In an interview in November 2003, Olmert set out the calculations behind the pair’s apparent conversion to a two-state solution. He warned that the rapidly growing Palestinian populations in both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories would soon overtake the number of Jews in the region and make Israeli rule look like apartheid.

Palestinians, he predicted, would realize that they could destroy Israel not through armed resistance but by waging a “powerful struggle” for “one man, one vote.”

This assessment provided the rationale for Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza in August 2005, which required a small territorial sacrifice in return for Israel’s being able to claim it had divested itself of responsibility for nearly one-third of the Palestinians under its rule. Importantly, the move postponed the apartheid analogy.

When Sharon was felled by a stroke at the start of 2006, Olmert inherited both his job and his ideological mantel, leading Kadima to a comfortable election victory.

The high watermark of his premiership came a short time later, when he was invited to address the US Congress, unveiling to the American public a policy he called “convergence,” which he believed would seal his stature as a peacemaker.

Under convergence, Israel would withdraw from those areas of the West Bank not enclosed by Israel’s steel and concrete security barrier. The spaces left behind would become the basis for a Palestinian state.

Olmert never had a practical chance to pursue his vision of a circumscribed Palestinian statehood. He was hit by three crises that derailed first his convergence policy and then his premiership.

The first was the rise to power of Hamas in Palestinian elections that coincided with Olmert’s own electoral victory. Despite sanctions, Hamas rapidly cemented its rule in Gaza and set the tenor of its relations with the Olmert government by capturing an Israeli soldier near the Gaza border.

The second crisis was the Lebanon war, launched after the Lebanese resistance group Hizballah captured two more soldiers, this time from the northern border. Israel unleashed a wave of attacks against its adversary for more than a month — to little effect apart from devastating Lebanon.

The subsequent report of the Winograd investigating committee, even though it was appointed by Olmert, could not whitewash the government and army’s failure to achieve any of the goals they had set for the operation.

Both crises made convergence look reckless. In the emerging Israeli consensus, withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 had unleashed a Hamas government and withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 had created a Hizballah mini-state. Why make the same mistake in the West Bank?

Stripped of his key policy, Omert floundered as he searched for a new direction. His popularity ratings sank to record lows. At this vulnerable moment, he was engulfed by a series of corruption scandals, most of them for alleged offenses predating his premiership.

His predecessor, Sharon, had been able to dodge similar investigations by adopting the disengagement policy, which disarmed his critics and transformed him into a peacemaker feted by the international community. Olmert, however, had lost his own protection with the discarding of “convergence.” The police closed in with greater confidence.

As allegations mounted, he was forced to announce his resignation in June, becoming caretaker prime minister as his party held a primary to choose a new leader, Tzipi Livni. When she failed to cobble together a coalition, new elections were held.

Olmert saw out his term making menacing noises to Iran, pursuing an agreement with Syria that he undid with his backing for an attack on Gaza in January, participating in terminally fruitless negotiations with the equally lame-duck Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and failing to negotiate the captured Israeli soldier’s release.

Two minor triumphs were attributed to Olmert: attacks on what Israel described as a Syrian nuclear reactor, and what was claimed to have been an Iranian weapons convoy traveling through Sudan on its way to Gaza.

But the circumstances of both remained so mysterious that he was unable to reap much personal credit.

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.

A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.