Former prime minister Ehud Olmert is a busy man these days, busier than usual.
He not only has his court appearances where he is fighting to stay out of jail; he is spending March and April traveling to different parts of the world.
One of only 12 people to serve as Israeli prime minister, he is the only one to stand trial on corruption charges after leaving that high office. The charges from his August 2009 indictment include fraud, breach of trust, falsifying corporate documents and tax evasion.
Though deliberately reclusive during his trial, Ehud Olmert is paradoxically stepping up his public profile: he visited South Korea in early March, where he shared a panel with former prime ministers and he lectured corporate leaders. Then, in America, he will lecture to think-tank specialists and speak at Jewish community forums. On April 29, he will be the keynote speaker at the first annual Jerusalem Post conference on American-Israeli relations in New York.
Obviously, the court did not take away his passport.
Olmert seems frustrated by the low profile the court case has enforced upon him. Much as he was used to speaking out in public in the past, he now shuns the spotlight for fear of the damage that the slightest gaffe might cause his legal defense.
“I see friends from the media, but I rarely give interviews,” Olmert tells The Jerusalem Report in his Tel Aviv office. His legacy, he hopes, will not be the alleged corruption
that prosecutors say he engaged in, but the peace accord with the Palestinians that he believes he was close to reaching. He continues to believe that the peace plan he presented to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas while prime minister could have led to a political agreement, especially had he not been forced to resign.
“We offered the Palestinians all that they asked for,” Olmert insists. “They have still not given an answer to the plan I proposed.” The premiership that he was forced to abandon, the corruption charges that he hopes to overcome, his personal peace plan
that still may be tempting Palestinian leaders and, of course, his beleaguered state make Ehud Olmert perhaps the nation’s most intriguing politician. Olmert remains persuaded that his political rivals have concocted a poisonous brew of allegations that have nothing to do with reality.
Picture of health
Always a back-slapper, always a touchy-feely kind of guy, Olmert, at 66, continues to radiate warmth toward friends. He is eager to hear from them about the behind the-scenes maneuverings in his legal case – and those who think they know pass along “you won’t believe what I just heard” tidbits for Olmert to mull over. He looks the picture of health. The prostate cancer he had a few years back is under control; talking about his health is not a priority for him.
As prime minister he was rarely seen without coat and tie. But today he eschews formalities. He wears open-necked dress shirts and slacks. These days he radiates guarded confidence – that he will be exonerated; that people will, as they did before, want to hear and read what he has to say on current domestic and diplomatic issues. To that end, he is writing his memoirs, a task that keeps him busy at his computer in his skyscraper office in Tel Aviv. By his own estimate he has finished one quarter of the book.
Taking pride that he is pecking away at the keyboard himself without a ghostwriter, he acknowledges that he has asked only one person to assist him in the writing: a secret assignment for nascent politician, Yair Lapid. Olmert was close to Yair’s father, Tommy Lapid who, like father, like son, was a broadcaster turned politician. As for the actual writing, says Olmert, “I write directly into the computer. Of course, later in the book, I will deal with the reasons that led me to resign, including my legal situation.”
Far from certain
While hoping for the best outcome, Olmert, the trained attorney, is all too aware that legal outcomes are far from certain.
“You never know,” he acknowledges. The broad grin that was an Olmert trademark shows up on occasion, but mostly he is serious, mirroring his situation.
He was indicted anew in January in what has been coined “the Holyland Affair.” The Holyland is a huge residential real estate project in west Jerusalem and Olmert is accused of accepting bribes to ignore zoning regulations and smoothing the path to construction when he was mayor of Jerusalem in the 1990s.
Olmert speaks as if he might walk away a free man by early summer. And yet the Holyland Affair hangs over his head. It is the first time he has been charged with taking bribes.
At present Olmert seeks to avoid collisions, big and small. So when he travels to the United States in late March he will not seek out meetings with either President Barack Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Make no mistake: he wishes he could visit with American officials: “I would love to see senior officials to discuss my plan for dealing with Iran and my peace plan with the Palestinians. But I prefer not to discuss those issues in public. What I can say is that my approach to these issues is entirely different from the substance and rhetoric of the present Israeli government.
“Israel is not the one that should be the spearhead of a military action against Iran. If and when military action is unavoidable, it is first and foremost the responsibility of the United States and I trust that America will rise to the challenge.”
Savoring the memory today, Olmert visited the White House in 2006, 2007, and 2008 – and then entertained former President George Bush in his Israeli home. One piece of evidence that the two men got along is a photo displayed on a wall outside Olmert’s office; the photo is of Olmert and Bush back to- back, measuring to see who is taller.
“I teased Bush that I was taller and I was right,” he says. “And Bush is great.”
When the Israeli-born Olmert was starting out as a politician in the 1970s and 1980s, he hardly considered that later in his career he would be seeking to forge stronger ties
between Israel and the United States by schmoozing with an American president.
After a brief stint practicing journalism at the IDF magazine “Bamahane,” in 1966 he entered the political realm as a 22-year-old student attending a convention of the Gahal Party, a forerunner to the Likud, calling on party leader Menachem Begin to resign after so many election losses. Stung by the young Olmert’s rhetoric, the all-powerful Begin still managed to stave off a forced retirement. A neophyte right-wing politician on the rise, Olmert became a Knesset Member at age 28 in 1973, a cabinet minister at 43, mayor of Jerusalem at age 48, and prime minister in 2006 at age 60, succeeding the ailing Ariel Sharon.
Hard to imagine, now that Olmert is an elder statesman, but he was once dubbed one of the three Likud “princes,” who, along with two current cabinet ministers, Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, were seen as the likely leaders of the next generation of right-wing politicians. Like Meridor and the young Begin, Olmert was the son of a founder of the pre-Likud Herut Party.
Once, the young Olmert was farther to the political right than even Begin. Opposed to returning lands captured in the 1967 Six Day War – the Sinai, Golan Heights, West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – he voted against the 1978 Camp David Accords with Egypt. However, he later admitted that Begin was right in pushing for the accord.
That Olmert had an epiphany during the 1980s – switching from the political right to the center, from being an ardent fan of a Greater Israel to a believer in compromise on the Palestinian issue – there can be no doubt. What remains unclear is why he underwent the shift. Theories abound: one is that his left-leaning wife Aliza had whispered in his ear enough times to make her husband come to his political senses.
Another is that his political mentor, Ariel Sharon, a shifter from the political right to the center himself, tipped the scales for Olmert. We do not know. Olmert speaks little of personal epiphanies. Needless to say, right-wing elements, once fans of his, have turned into his biggest foes.
January 6, 2006 was undoubtedly the most important day in Olmert’s political life. It was on that day that Sharon was rushed to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem after suffering a stroke that left him in a coma to this day. Olmert immediately became interim prime minister and then won election as prime minister in his own right, running at the head of Sharon’s Likud offshoot, the Kadima Party.
Although he had been proclaimed a political prince, he was never touted as a future prime minister; Olmert was likely the most surprised person in Israel at his sudden rise
to the pinnacle of government.
No Palestinian response
As Olmert assumed power, Palestinian suicide bombings that had cost the lives of 524 Israelis between 2001 and 2005 were on the wane. Prospects for peace seemed a tiny bit brighter. For two years, Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas discussed the details of a possible Israeli-Palestinian accord, one that would lead to a Palestinian state. Olmert offered terms that he felt could not, would not, be refused. To his lasting disappointment, the Palestinians never responded.
So Olmert, once the companion of George Bush and Mahmoud Abbas, is now a man for whom a courtroom and a Tel Aviv office suite have become second homes. As befitting a former prime minister, there is no indication at the front door of his office who is at work inside. Within Olmert’s inner sanctum are the paraphernalia of modern technology: a flat-screen computer, a printer, and a cell phone. His desk is largely free of documents.
Once, aides fell over themselves to serve him as prime minister. Today, just two secretaries are at his disposal. As the conversation comes to a close, Olmert finds it diverting to talk about those spare moments that he has always enjoyed so much: watching an NBA game, for instance.
Meeting Amar’e Stoudemire, a black American who plays for the NBA’s New York Knicks and who claims to have Jewish blood, was a recent Olmert sports highlight.
And, naturally, as one of Israel’s greatest NBA fans, Olmert knows precisely how many points the latest NBA phenomenon, Jeremy Lin, scored (19) and how many assists (13) he had against the Cleveland Cavaliers in a recent game.
What is remarkable about the former prime minister is his equanimity in the face of the scorn unleashed against him from an assortment of foes. It is not clear how aware
he is of the rancor some have toward him because he does not discuss his enemies’ critiques.
But by taking on a more public, and more assertive role, he may be seeking to respond to those foes without saying a word against them, hoping to offer evidence that he is still a most desirable and desired politician.
The writer has written numerous biographies and worked for Time Magazine.