Grapevine: Ehud Olmert – a silent hero

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

July 23, 2019 21:10
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Israel is reluctant to prosecute its heroes. Courage in the line of fire has more or less triumphed over fiscal improprieties and other forms of corruption, where the nation’s heroes are concerned. One doesn’t have to be a military general to be a hero, but if one isn’t, convictions for bribery, breach of trust, obstruction of justice and other forms of corruption follow.

Unfortunately, former prime minister Ehud Olmert was not a general in the Israel Defense Forces. While serving in the Golani Brigade, he was injured, and after a series of treatments completed his army service as a journalist for the IDF magazine Bamahane.

Thus, when Olmert was charged with accepting bribes and obstructing justice, he was convicted and sent to prison. He would have in all probability escaped such a fate, had he revealed that he was in a very real sense the savior of the people of Israel. But he chose to remain silent.

Now that he is no longer in prison, he is less silent about what he did, but he doesn’t reveal all – not even to Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Yaakov Katz, whose well-researched book Shadow Strike – Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power is going through a number of launches in Israel and abroad.

Olmert, who supplied a lot of the background information for the book, was interviewed again by Katz against the present backdrop of Iran at the recent Jerusalem Post Conference in New York. Olmert also came to Jerusalem last week to participate in a launch event that was held at Beit Avi Chai, and announced that, as far as he was aware, the book is already a best seller.

In fact, a large stack of books that was being sold by Steimatzky in the lobby of Beit Avi Chai garnered a few sales before the launch discussion, but was rapidly depleted after the discussion, as members of the audience stood patiently in line to make a purchase and to have Katz autograph their copy. Despite predictions that books in their centuries-old format would be sacrificed on the altar of Kindle, it was very obvious that people still like to hold a hard copy book in their hands, even though the method of printing has changed and happens to be digital.

The book is essentially about the destruction by Israel of the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. It was an ironclad, top secret operation that could not have been executed without Olmert explicitly giving the order – but more important, defying the president of the United States, who preferred to attempt nuclear disarmament by diplomacy rather than by military assault.

According to Katz, it was one of many covert security operations approved by Olmert during his term as prime minister.
Ehud Barak, who was then defense minister, was also against a strike by Israel, albeit for different reasons. But Olmert gave such high priority to Israel’s security that he was willing to take the risk of ruffling American feathers by doing what no other Israeli prime minister had ever dared to do, and say an outright “no” to the president of Israel’s greatest and most long-standing ally.

He had kept the Americans informed every step of the way, and US president George W. Bush had counseled him not to strike. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was also opposed, and the only support that Olmert had from the Americans was from Vice President Dick Cheney, who having been intimately familiar with the strike against the Iraqi nuclear reactor was completely in favor.
Olmert had initially hoped that Bush, with whom he had a strong personal friendship, would order American military personnel to bomb the site, but when he declined, Olmert decided to follow the example set by Menachem Begin, and went ahead, after detailed consultation with the Mossad. His aim was to prevent Syria from producing nuclear warheads.

What absolutely convinced him was a set of photographs of Syria’s nuclear reactor presented to him by then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who together with his deputy asked Olmert for an urgent closed-door meeting. “I don’t think any prime minister in Israel had such a presentation,” said Olmert in retrospect.

During the meeting Olmert’s longtime aide and confidant Yanki Galanti knocked on the door with urgent news related to Olmert’s legal predicament, but Olmert shooed him away. Dagan looked at Olmert and asked, “What are we going to do?” And Olmert replied, “We are going to strike.”

Silence after the fact was essential in order to avoid Syrian retaliation, in which thousands of people on both sides would have been killed.

Bush, of course, was in the know. He warmly congratulated Olmert on a mission accomplished, and was reported to have said of Olmert: “He’s got guts.”

The Syrians had been cautioned two months earlier that Israel and the Americans were contemplating an assault, and according to Olmert had 500 missiles ready to shoot in the event that Israel did attack the reactor. There was still a danger that the Syrians would shoot after the attack, but Israel preempted the Syrians in a well-executed military operation.

Katz admitted that early in his two-year research, he had initially been somewhat skeptical about Olmert, but after asking around in tight security circles, he developed great respect for Olmert as a statesman. Everything that Olmert told him in relation to the strike was confirmed. “Olmert is an example of statesmanship,” he said. “That was Olmert’s moment in history.”

Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer, who moderated the discussion, said that in advance of the launch night, he had made a few phone calls, including to Amos Yadlin, who had been among the eight Israeli pilots who carried out the operation against the Iraqi nuclear reactor in June 1981, and who at the time of the attack on Syria was head of IDF Military Intelligence. Yadlin, who is currently director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, told Pfeffer that he had never been involved in an operation in which the decision-making was on such a high scale.

There were so many opportunities for Olmert to talk both before and after he was convicted, said Katz. “He could have said ‘I saved you’, but even when he was in jail, he remained silent.”

Olmert explained that a prime minister has to make a distinction between personal issues and national obligations.

During the period in which he was under investigation, Olmert had to contend with a lot of criticism, but noted that what he was indicted for had nothing to do with his duty as prime minister, and that his duty was never affected by personal interests. Although Pfeffer, who has written a book about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tried to draw Olmert into some kind of critical comment about his successor, Olmert opted not to fall into that trap but did comment that he could not see how Netanyahu can form a government under the status quo. “This is the opportunity that [Avigdor] Liberman has waited for all his life,” said Olmert.

Asked what advice he had to give to any future prime minister, Olmert replied: “Go to bed at 10 p.m. and make sure that no one wakes you before 7 a.m. – unless there’s something monumental.”

“The prime minister has to be vigilant and define for himself what is most important for the security of the country, and to carry it out no matter what,” Olmert said.

■ GUEST OF honor at the Jerusalem Film Festival on Thursday night will be President Reuven Rivlin, for whom this will be an evening of nostalgia in more ways than one if he actually stays to watch the movie, after delivering his greetings. Last year, his wife, Nechama, well known as a movie buff, and a regular at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and at film festivals, attended the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival and even presented one of the prizes. She had been looking forward to this year’s festival, but unfortunately died in the first week of June following complications after undergoing a lung transplant.

This year, the Jerusalem Foundation is sponsoring the Nechama Rivlin Award, to be presented to a first-time filmmaker. The other reason that Rivlin may stay till the end of the evening is that the film launching this year’s festival is Parasite, a South Korean comedy that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. Rivlin, who spent last week in South Korea, returned home as an honorary citizen of Seoul, so he also has that reason to stay for the whole of the evening’s program.

■ AS HAPPENS every year, there was a memorial ceremony for Zionist visionary Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl at his graveside on Mount Herzl this week, but Herzl will also be brought to mind on other occasions this year.

On July 31, David Matlow, a Canadian collector of artifacts pertaining to Herzl, will be at the Herzl Center on Mount Herzl to speak about Herzl’s legacy through his artifacts.

In a previous Grapevine column, it was mentioned that Swiss Ambassador Jean-Daniel Ruch is preparing for the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Switzerland and Israel, and is naturally basing it on Basel, site of the First Zionist Congress.

Doubts expressed in the previous item as to whether the event would be held in the Herzl Museum in Jerusalem were well founded. The two-day program scheduled for September 24 and 25 is headlined “Basel in Tel Aviv.” A Basel night will be held in Opera Square, courtesy of the Tel Aviv Municipality, and on September 25 the world-class Basel Ballet will perform Tevye at the Tel Aviv Opera House. The production is based on the classic story of Tevye the Dairyman by Sholem Aleichem. There will be other activities as well, and a high-powered delegation will be coming from Switzerland for the festivities.

It is to be hoped that someone will remember to invite Chaim Topol, the most internationally famous Tevye on both stage and screen. It would be by way of a birthday gift. Topol was born on September 9, as was Rivlin. Topol will be celebrating his 84th birthday, and Rivlin his 80th. Another octogenarian celebrating a birthday around that time is Mr. Television, Haim Yavin, whose 87th birthday is on September 10. Having a birthday closer to the Basel activities is Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog, who will be 59 on September 22.

■ AMBASSADORS HOSTING national day events are seldom aware of the identities of all of their guests. Many of the invitees are people whom the host has never met before. This was the case with Rwandan Ambassador Joseph Rutabana at the reception that he hosted recently in honor of Rwanda’s Independence Day.

Among the guests was well-known Jaffa storyteller Doris Hiffawi, a Christian Arab who lives in the legendary Ajami neighborhood in Jaffa. When the feature film Ajami, an Israeli-Palestinian cooperative venture, was released 10 years ago, Hiffawi was inspired by the weaving of different stories within the film, and as she knows so many stories herself, having grown up with Christians, Muslims and Jews, she decided to share them with both locals and visitors from abroad. She speaks Arabic, Hebrew and English with equal fluency. The hour-long storytelling sessions are held in her own home, where she serves local culinary delights. Her guests are always fascinated by her stories, which are designed to give them a broader perspective of Israel as a pluralistic society in religious, cultural and ethnic terms.

At the ambassador’s party, Hiffawi introduced herself to him and to his wife, Aline Bizimana, who is the current president of the International Women’s Club of Israel, and invited them to visit her in Jaffa.

Rutabana took her up on the invitation, went on a tour of Jaffa with her that included the famous Anton Coffee shop, where for more than 60 years members of her family have been roasting their own coffee beans and blending their own coffee. Hiffawi’s family has been living in Jaffa for more than 100 years. Rutabana got some more coffee plus baklava at Hiffawi’s home, where she regaled him with stories about Jaffa.

■ OF COURSE, no one knows the final results of an election, regardless of preelection surveys and exit poll assessments. Survey results are often based on questions designed to obtain a particular slant, and exit poll respondents are not always honest. But according to former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Bret Stephens, who is currently an op-ed columnist with The New York Times, everyone who wishes to see US President Donald Trump lose the 2020 elections should be aware that Trump’s Electoral College edge could grow in 2020. It was, after all, the Electoral College that springboarded him into the White House, despite the fact that Hillary Clinton scored more votes from the general electorate.

■ STILL ON the subject of Trump, former US ambassador Dan Shapiro, in response to a request to name a fictional character who voted for Trump, replied “Archie Bunker, of course.” Then he added the corollary: “But Edith has him having second thoughts for 2020.”

■ ON SUNDAY, Rivlin hosted the steering committee of the Eurovision Song Contest, along with veteran broadcaster Erez Tal, who was one of the four presenters. Rivlin wanted to express the nation’s appreciation for the sterling job that was done in presenting a very positive side of Israel. He lauded the international mega production, which was watched by close to 200 million people worldwide. It almost pained him to admit that the number of viewers exceeded those who watched the finals of the World Cup soccer matches.

Rivlin, who spoke out in solidarity with the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation’s predecessor, the Israel Broadcasting Authority, when it was fighting for its existence, underscored that there is no democracy without public broadcasting, and insisted that public broadcasting must remain on the national agenda.

Ehud Koblenz, the CEO of IPBC, spoke of the combined efforts of the IPBC management, its public council, and the private sector to ensure that the Eurovision broadcast from Tel Aviv would be a groundbreaking event. Every frame on the screen was worked over again and again with an aim for perfection. There were 5,000 people engaged in the overall operation, he said, stressing that all the people in key positions were Israelis.

In the two years of its existence, he said, the IPBC had proved that it was capable of implementing reforms and had succeeded in improving broadcast services. Within the next three years, he promised, the IPBC will be the best content provider in the country.
Gil Omer, the chairman of the IPBC Public Council, was particularly proud of the fact that only two years after its inception, the IPBC had been able to undertake such a massive production as Eurovision and bring honor to Israel in the process. The whole affair gave visitors and viewers an opportunity to see something of the diversity of Israel and to come away with a much better impression than television usually conveys about Israel.

■ AMONG THE more interesting food programs on television is Anahnu al Hamapit (We are on the Napkin), hosted by chef Barak Yehezkeli, the proprietor of the Burek restaurant in Tel Aviv. His program, which is seen on Kan 11, is not your usual cooking program where almost everything happens inside the kitchen. Yehezkeli is a traveler seeking out Israelis whose culinary creativity is serving Israel’s image abroad – and not only because of the quality and diversity of the cuisine.

Most of the Israeli chefs whom he finds in different parts of the world are friendly, outgoing, with loads of personality in addition to their culinary skills, and most have established their own restaurants, gradually building up a reputation and a large and faithful clientele. Yehezkeli introduces viewers to these chefs, their homes, their families, their restaurants, the markets where they purchase their supplies, the environments in which they work and live, as well as other local restaurants that the chefs themselves recommend for their various specialties.

It’s a delightful, very human program in which viewers see Yehezkeli, wheeling his compact trolley case, arriving at an Israeli-owned restaurant – and the story unfolds from there. Viewers learn how and why the chef came to this town or city; what led the chef to his or her profession; and how much of the menu is derived from his or her mother’s recipes.

Yehezkeli does a lot of tasting in the Israeli restaurant, remarking on the ingredients, the presentation, the flavors and the overall effect on the palate – and he does the same in other restaurants.

He’s good looking, articulate in English, very personable, very telegenic – but he has one serious flaw, which surprisingly the producers of the show have either ignored or have failed to see, or have simply decided that this is how the world must view brash Israelis. Except that Yehezkeli is not brash. He’s laid-back, exceedingly polite and well-mannered, with the unfortunate exception of his table manners, which are atrocious. He bites into hand-held food as though he were a caveman and, when eating with a knife and fork, wields the fork as though it were a spoon, but grasps it from the top of the handle, so that it sits inside his fist. He wields his knife in the air instead of pointing it downward toward the plate. It doesn’t look good in a restaurant, and it certainly doesn’t look good on screen, especially when his table companion has good table manners. It’s a pity, because otherwise it’s a really great show, though it would be nice if he would occasionally find a chef who has a kosher enterprise.

■ BLUE AND White would-be prime minister Benny Gantz is now courting young voters. At the beginning of this week, he was in Lod to meet with students who are part of the Tozeret Ha’aretz (Made in Israel) program, in which in return for a two-year university scholarship, they form communities in peripheral towns and cities, attend weekly community meetings, and become agents for change by leading social urban enterprises in the places where they reside. Some remain in these places after the two-year period has concluded, especially if they can see that they have been effective in their efforts.

Gantz, who was accompanied by MK Orit Farkash-Hacohen and MK Ram Shefa, who is familiar with Tozeret Ha’aretz from his previous position as chairman of the National Student Union, met with Tozeret Ha’aretz co-CEOs Lior Zorno Hefetz and Yuval Bdolah, who introduced him to some of the students. Gantz expressed interest in what they were doing and why, and took the opportunity to make a pitch for votes.

■ IT WAS already publicized in December last year that US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib would lead a congressional delegation to the West Bank in August. Every year, the American Israel Education Foundation brings US lawmakers, primarily those in their first term, to visit Israel in the first half of August. Thus, when Ilhan Omar made her flamboyant statement about visiting Israel and the Palestinian Authority, it was simply a cheap publicity stunt by the obsessive Israel-basher and BDS supporter. She knew that there was a bipartisan delegation of congressional leaders along with freshman members of Congress scheduled to come to Israel in August. So unless Tlaib is planning to lead her own delegation, she and Omar will in all probability be part of the delegation that is being led by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.

In the past such delegations have met with the president and prime minister of Israel. If Omar is indeed part of Hoyer’s delegation, it will be extremely interesting to be a fly on the wall when the delegation meets with Rivlin and Netanyahu.

■ AN INCREASE in violence in schools plus an alleged gang rape in Cyprus involving a group of Israeli teenagers have prompted Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel and Eva Madj’iboj, the CEO of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women, to issue a joint statement calling on Education Minister Rafi Peretz to introduce an anti-violence program at all schools.

In an era in which spare the rod and spoil the child has become an obsolete philosophy, students not only fight each other, sometimes using knives and broken bottles, but also take the liberty of physically attacking and mocking their teachers. Respect has gone out the window. The two women pointed out that, as things stand, there is an awareness week in which attempts are made to get people to recognize the seeds of violence in themselves and their neighbors, but after that very little is done to eradicate violence during the rest of the year. There have been some hair-raising cases of sexual violence perpetrated both by pedophiles and by schoolboys.

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