The leader Israel won't have

While there is no doubt that Olmert deserves to be punished, and punished severely, he did prove himself to be a competent prime minister, ready to make tough and sometimes risky decisions for Israel’s national interests.

April 1, 2014 00:45
3 minute read.
Ehud Olmert

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert. (photo credit: ELI MANDELBAUM)


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What a pity.

One of Israel’s best prime ministers ever was convicted of accepting bribes in the Holyland real estate corruption project in Jerusalem.

Ehud Olmert may become the first Israeli prime minister to be sent to jail. It is one of the largest and worst fraud scandals ever exposed in Israel.

There is no doubt that Olmert – who served as prime minister for nearly five years, from 2006 to 2010 – deserves to be punished, and punished severely. Israel, which has already witnessed a state president (Moshe Katsav) who was a sex maniac and rapist, a corrupt finance minister (Avraham Hirschshon) and dozens of corrupt MKs and senior state officials, needs to send a clear and strong message also in this case that corruption is intolerable.

I have known Mr. Olmert for nearly forty years. Born to a poor rural family from young age, he did not hide his desire to become rich, and quickly. It was easy to see when he was a young and rising politician roaming the corridors of power that he was greedy. He was always ready to make a quick buck.

The charges leveled against him for which the Tel Aviv court convicted him occurred twenty years ago, when he was a cabinet minister and mayor of Jerusalem.

Olmert changed when he entered the Prime Minister’s Office in January 2006, after his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, suffered a stroke. He kicked his old habits, forgot his greediness and started to mature with the heavy responsibilities of his work.

He proved himself to be a competent prime minister, ready to make tough and sometimes risky decisions for Israel’s national interests.

It was Olmert who had the guts, despite the uncertainties and fears of a major escalation, to order the Israel Air Force to bomb Syria’s nuclear reactor in September 2007, weeks before it would become radioactive and operational. And it was Olmert who cleverly formulated the decision to maintain silence about the operation, neither claiming responsibility nor denying it, thus helping President Bashar Assad to swallow his pride and not retaliate.

Olmert made the decision to destroy the Syrian reactor despite the unforgivable opposition of his defense minister, Ehud Barak. In retrospect, it was one of the most important strategic decisions in the history of Israel, along with the similar decision that prime minister Menachem Begin made in 1981 to knock down Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor near Baghdad.

Four months after the destruction of the Syrian reactor, according to foreign sources, Olmert approved another daring operation – instructing forces to kill Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s “defense minister” and one of the most wanted terrorist in the world.

Mughniyeh was gunned down in Damascus. The gunmen left no traces.

Even the two controversial wars launched during Olmert’s premiership – in summer 2006 against Hezbollah in Lebanon and in December 2009 against Hamas in Gaza – proved in retrospect to be very effective, and helped Israel to maintain its deterrence edge.

As a prime minister, his world view and ideology underwent a dramatic change. He realized that his old right-wing (and sometimes extreme-right-wing) opinions in support of the settlements and rejection of a Palestinian state were not compatible with reality. Olmert became deeply involved in the negotiations, forming a personal and professional friendship with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

If Israel had continued with Olmert’s ambition and drive, and above all, his flexibility, it most likely would have achieved an agreement with the PA.

With Olmert’s conviction, his political career is over. There is no chance, not even the slimmest one, that he could be the “comeback kid” whom so many Israelis who are disappointed with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s rigid and uncompromising policies were hoping to witness.

With Olmert on his way to a prison cell, and with another prime ministerial hopeful, former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, on the verge of being indicted on criminal charges of dishonorable behavior, forgery and cover- ups, the peace camp is left with no serious candidate to match Netanyahu.

Israel is left with the notion that there is only one game in town – Bibi’s.

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