Middle Israel: The king’s temptation

Is the tragedy of Ehud Olmert about him, about politics, or about us?

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert (photo credit: ELI MANDELBAUM)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert
(photo credit: ELI MANDELBAUM)
Compelled to retire following a minor stroke, Winston Churchill spent his last decade writing, painting, socializing and generally basking in the glory of a career whose turbulent crux gave way to a natural, dignified and peaceful end.
Not one of Israel’s 12 premierships ended this way.
David Ben-Gurion spent his last years cultivating enmities with lifelong friends, other prime ministers faded away, heartbroken after bloody wars, some were trounced at the ballots, some were felled by illness and one by a murderer’s bullets.
In his last year in office, Churchill said he felt “like an airplane at the end of its flight, in the dusk, with the petrol running out, in search of a safe landing.” The Old Lion landed safely before running out of fuel. Israeli premierships, by contrast, ended in emergency landings, lost dogfights and – in Ehud Olmert’s case – with the ejection button pressed.
Surely, there is symbolism in this. The bitter endings of Israeli premierships are emblems of the turbulence in which this country lives and the pressures its leaders must endure. In this regard Olmert’s tragedy is but a variation on a familiar theme.
Yet this case is different.
Olmert’s downfall was not about his political delivery, but about his personal conduct, and it was not about what happened while he led the country, but about what he did before that.
What, then, was it about? THE STORY of Olmert’s downfall begins in his background.
Olmert is part of a uniquely Israeli class of second-generation lawmakers. Ranging from Yael Dayan, Ephraim Sneh and Isaac Herzog on the Left to Uzi Landau, Benny Begin and Yair Shamir on the Right, through Yair Lapid in the Center, these are the closest Israeli society comes to nobility.
Dozens of these born politicians have entered and left the political fray over the decades.
Like nobles, they enjoyed easier access to power but mostly proved unable to lead. That is how Avraham Burg failed to conquer Labor, Benny Begin failed to conquer Likud and Dan Meridor failed to conquer the political center when he tried in 1999.
Ehud Olmert was part of this syndrome.
Son of Mordechai Olmert, a lawmaker during the 1950s in Menachem Begin’s Herut, Olmert-the-son, like most nobility, lacked charisma and vision, except that he did reach the top, following Ariel Sharon’s abrupt departure.
Olmert’s loss soon afterward of a quarter of the votes Sharon had been forecast to win reflected the shortcomings of his political background.
Nobles are good at roaming the power labyrinths into which they were born, and at mastering rules of procedure – whether the party’s, the legislature’s, or the media’s – that were part of their parents’ dinner- table conversation. They are less skilled at sweeping the masses off their feet.
That is what happened with Olmert’s mayoralty. His predecessor, Teddy Kollek, was in his element passing from neighborhood to neighborhood, talking to the people and delivering another library, another playground and another park while checkering the city with countless gems, from the Israel Museum and the Biblical Zoo to the Cinematheque, Teddy Stadium, the Sultan’s Pool, the Liberty Bell Garden, the Jerusalem Theater, the Music Center and whatnot.
Olmert failed to follow this pattern. As if to epitomize the prince’s inherent craving for kingship, his mayoralty was a search for greatness. And so, he focused on mega-projects like the light rail, the Begin expressway and the Holyland real-estate project that ultimately brought him down.
The prince failed to understand his office’s very purpose, which was not to worship and exhibit power, but to build Jerusalem through a dialogue with its inhabitants. By the time the residents realized their city was falling into disrepair, he had passed the mayoralty to the ultra-Orthodoxy, again serving his personal needs while ignoring the public’s.
It was not hubris, because the conceit behind it was not the result of Olmert’s encounter with power; it was its cause The “princes” are better as advisers than as leaders, because leadership is by definition to be conquered rather than inherited. Worse, some princes dragged father-son complexes and also hereditary frustrations. It didn’t happen with all of them, but it did with Olmert.
Olmert witnessed his father’s ouster from the Knesset by party leader Menachem Begin after two terms as a lawmaker.
The father’s bitterness was followed in 1966 by the 21-yearold Ehud Olmert’s astonishing demand in Herut’s convention that Begin step down as leader of the party he personified. It was an early manifestation of the sense of entitlement that would later make him betray his loyal secretary of decades, Shula Zaken.
Olmert’s attack on Begin resulted in his leaving Herut and joining a small competing faction. The future prime minister’s career thus began on the margins. His new situation multiplied the frustration of political irrelevance in which he, like all politicians who were born to Begin’s disciples, from Tzipi Livni to Tzachi Hanegbi, was raised.
That is where Olmert’s quest to belong, to matter, and to lead was born. From that early point, politics was for him a Sisyphean effort to maneuver within the system in search of its center of gravity, an effort that came at the expense of considering the system’s actual purpose and direction.
OLMERT’S dedication of most of his strategic thought to himself rather than to the public meant he was caught off guard when he suddenly found himself in the prime minister’s seat. Now he had to display a strategic vision, and he lost no time improvising one.
Eager to appear as Sharon’s reincarnation, Olmert unveiled what he called the Convergence Plan, whereby Israel would unilaterally leave the West Bank the way it had left Gaza. Until today it is not known what forum, if any, he consulted before adopting this ambitious idea, which he sheepishly shelved after the Second Lebanon War without ever explaining why.
The same strategic frivolity was displayed in his key ministerial appointments: Amir Peretz as defense minister and Avraham Hirchson as finance minister.
Peretz had been an able small-town mayor and union leader, but he had no vision for or familiarity with his ultra-sensitive task’s subject matter. Failure came fast when he faced the cameras at the outset of the Second Lebanon War and bragged that “Nasrallah will remember Amir Peretz.” Peretz soon resigned in disgrace; Nasrallah is still there. Hirchson’s appointment was even more embarrassing, as he ended up convicted of embezzlement in a previous position, and jailed.
It all was able to happen because Olmert-the-prince’s focus was not on the kingdom’s direction but on the prince’s kingship. That is why upon arriving in the prime minister’s chair he quickly embarked on a grand tour of Western capitals, eager to feel regality, and delayed the much more urgent encounter with the millions of Israelis he was elected to lead.
Olmert could have arrived in office humble, ready to appoint people according to their abilities and the country’s needs and eager to focus on the domestic issues, which bored him much the way he had little interest as mayor in building playgrounds and collecting garbage.
Corruption is not an Israeli invention, least of all Olmert’s.
The democratic world has seen sensational corruption scandals, from Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew to Jacques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi.
In Israel, the struggle between power and justice has been under way since 1977, when a designated governor of the Bank of Israel, Asher Yadlin, was jailed for embezzlement and a prime minister’s wife, Leah Rabin, was indicted for a currency-law violation.
The question is not whether there is corruption – of course there is – but how it festers and how it is treated.
Olmert’s case is alarming not in terms of his background; most second-generation politicians are not corrupt and accidents like Sharon’s departure, which enabled Olmert’s rise to the top, are rare. What is alarming is that the mindset behind the Holyland monstrosity was part of a zeitgeist.
Olmert was not alone in craving luxury dwellings, first-class flights, presidential suites and other vestiges of extravaganza. Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu were plagued by the same disease.
Perhaps their hedonism was a reaction to our founding fathers’ asceticism, highlighted by Ben-Gurion’s dwelling in a shack in the desert and Begin’s in a two-bedroom shoe box.
Fortunately, the pendulum is swinging back. The social upheaval of recent years is breeding a new type of Israeli, one who treats big business with suspicion rather than the admiration and sycophancy Olmert brought to his ill-fated encounter with plutocracy.
The other good news is that the public domain’s immune system is working. The legal system, from the cop through the prosecutor to the judge, displayed the kind of resolve, resourcefulness and courage that should make any politician fear power’s temptations.
The temptations themselves, alas, will always be there, as will those too weak to resist them.
Back when he limited the future kings’ cavalry, women and gold, Moses detected power’s three main seductions as war, sex, and greed.
These are the kings’ temptations, not ours, and the people of Israel have now punished them all: Menachem Begin for war, Moshe Katsav for rape and Ehud Olmert for greed.