The jury is still out on outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's impact on the fate of the nation
By LESLIE SUSSERExtract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
Ehud Olmert will not have much time on his hands when he leaves the Prime Minister's Office. As Benjamin Netanyahu was putting together the new government coalition expected to be sworn in around mid-March, it became increasingly clear that the outgoing premier would have his hands full dealing with the corruption allegations that forced him to resign.
Perhaps it's better for him that way. If he had nothing else to do in his enforced early retirement, he could well have found himself spending a lot of time agonizing over a highly controversial record, on the security and diplomatic as well as the ethical fronts. Three years and two controversial wars after taking office, Olmert is leaving without peace, without recognized final borders and with as daunting a security outlook for Israel as at any time since its founding in 1948.
His last days in office were far from triumphant. It was bad enough to see that Netanyahu's government was set to be a hard-line right-wing affair, totally opposed to the compromising, moderate line that he and his Kadima party had advocated and tried to implement. But the main blows came on the legal front.
On the last Friday in February, fraud squad detectives arrived at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem to question Olmert for the 16th time on a slew of corruption allegations. The following Sunday the attorney general informed the outgoing premier that he intended to charge him with fraud and breach of trust for allegedly receiving over one hundred thousand dollars illegally over a 12-year period from 1993 from American businessman Morris Talansky. And on the Thursday, police announced they would recommend indicting Olmert for granting preferential treatment as minister of Trade and Industry in 2003-4 to his former law partner, Uri Messer. In the so-called "Rishon Tours" case, multiple billings by Olmert for trips and lectures abroad, the attorney general had already decided to indict him pending a hearing.
Two other investigations are still ongoing: Over a house Olmert bought at a reduced price in Jerusalem's Cremieux Street, allegedly in return for building rights he secured for the developers, and over jobs he reserved for cronies in the Trade and Industry Ministry. The dissonance between the plethora of humiliating investigations that forced Israel's 12th prime minister out of office and the high hopes in Israel and the international community that greeted his election three years earlier could not have been greater.
The mills of justice, especially Israel's, grind slow, and it remains to be seen how many of the charges stick. But when it comes to judgment on the other aspects of his premiership, the process in the court of public opinion is already well under way. So how will history judge him? As a tragic figure who could have done great things but for the corruption allegations against him or as a corrupt and inept prime minister who failed at every turn?
Olmert was elected on March 28, 2006, after inheriting the leadership of the Kadima party from the invalided, hugely popular Ariel Sharon. Olmert's campaign promise was to set the country's final borders by 2010. That hugely ambitious goal would have meant ending the occupation of the West Bank, making peace with Syria and getting the international community to recognize the new lines as permanent boundaries. For many Israelis, it would have meant final fulfillment of the Zionist dream, although for others, it entailed a disastrous betrayal of their version of that dream.
Either way, coming hard on the heels of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, it seemed doable. Even now, he and his close aides say he nearly made it; that he spent countless hours of negotiation with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and that in the end the differences between them were "minuscule"; that he was on the verge of direct talks with the Syrians; that he helped forge an international consensus against Iran's nuclear weapons' program; that he stopped Syria from developing nuclear power; and that the wars he waged tilted the deterrent balance in Israel's favor. Olmert himself in a late-February TV interview claimed that he led moves of "historical significance" on both the Palestinian and the Syrian tracks, and that he made a string of classified game-changing decisions that would make people's "ears prick up," but cannot yet be revealed.
Critics, however, describe Olmert as a loner, a man out of his depth strategically who bungled a golden opportunity for peace with the Palestinians that is unlikely to return any time soon, who woke up to the chances for peace with Syria too late and who fought two wars which did nothing to improve Israel's security.
It was three weeks before the 2006 election when Olmert announced his plan to set Israel's permanent borders by 2010 "unilaterally if necessary, through negotiation if possible." The plan to pull back from the West Bank was dubbed "convergence" - because unlike Gaza in 2005, the idea was not to "disengage" completely from the West Bank, but to relocate or "converge" far-flung settlements in large settlement blocks Israel would retain. West Bank settler Otniel Schneller was brought into Olmert's Kadima party to help draw the maps and persuade his fellow settlers that this way nearly 80 percent of them would be able to retain their homes, which, after the new borders were demarcated, would be located in Israel proper.
But on July 12, barely two months after Olmert had formed his government, IDF soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were abducted by Hizballah fighters along the Lebanon border and for Olmert everything changed. The 34 days of persistent Hizballah rocketing of civilian targets that followed the war he initiated left the convergence plan dead in the water. The fear in Israel was that unilateral withdrawal from large swathes of the West Bank would leave strategic targets, like Ben-Gurion Airport, vulnerable to copycat rocket attack. By the end of the war in mid-August, Olmert was already telling Kadima leaders that it was no longer "appropriate to talk about convergence."
The Hamas seizure of Gaza in June 2007 finally killed off any lingering thought of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. The ensuing rocketing of Israeli civilians in the Gaza periphery was seen as a surefire model for what would happen to central Israel if Israeli forces left the West Bank without effective security arrangements.
The split in Palestinian ranks, however, opened up new possibilities for peacemaking. Olmert who argued that a two-state solution - Israel and Palestine - was vital for Israel's long-term survival was able to engage the more moderate secular Fatah-led Palestinian Authority that controlled the West Bank in what came to be known as the "Annapolis process." His commitment to the two-state solution was total.
"If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished," he declared on the last day of the Annapolis summit that launched the intensive negotiating process in November 2007.
Olmert's close aides maintain that he made a "superhuman effort" to cut a deal with Abbas, but that the Palestinians never came through. "They said two states, but not two homelands. They never recognized the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination in their historic homeland, the way Israel did for them," says a senior Olmert aide privy to the talks.
Last August Olmert leaked details of a proposal on final borders: The Palestinians would get 93 percent of the West Bank, another 5.5 percent in land swaps and 1.5 percent in a corridor joining Gaza and the West Bank making up the equivalent of 100 percent of the territory. The Palestinians said no, but never came back with figures of their own.
"It was a bit like Arafat at Camp David 2000 again; there never was a serious counter proposal," the official insists. Moreover, the hoped for trade-offs of Israeli concessions on Jerusalem for Palestinian concessions on the right of return to Israel proper for Palestinian refugees never materialized. "We got close, but we never got there. Maybe because of political weakness, maybe because he thought he would be playing into Hamas's hands or that other Fatah leaders might criticize him, Abbas was inherently unwilling to make a major move. All the boldness and creativity came from our side," the official maintains.
Olmert launched a parallel effort to set final borders with Syria in February 2007, when in a meeting with Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, he authorized Turkish mediation. By December 2008, after nearly two years of indirect feelers, the stage was set for a renewal of direct talks broken off in 2000. With Olmert again in Ankara and in the same room, Erdogan phoned Syria's President Bashar Asad, urging him to dispatch his Foreign Minister Walid Mualem for a head-to-head in the Turkish capital. The logistics didn't work out, and soon afterwards Israel launched its attack on Gaza, bringing the Turkish mediation effort to an acrimonious if temporary halt.
The bottom line: As concerted and sincere they may have been, Olmert's efforts to set recognized borders for Israel - in the West Bank and on the Golan - got nowhere. Nothing changed on the ground and nothing was recognized. The not surprising upshot has been scathing criticism of the outgoing prime minister from across the political spectrum: from the right for trying, and from the left and center for falling down on the job.
Left-wingers argue that Olmert squandered an historic opportunity for a peace deal with the Palestinian moderates. "I had spoken to both Olmert and Abbas in private and knew how far they were willing to go, and I think that an agreement was within reach. And when I look back, it seems to me like another one of these famous missed opportunities," says Gershon Baskin, CEO and founder of Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI).
Worse, says Baskin, Olmert refused to put anything down in writing so that despite his excellent chemistry with Abbas and all the progress they made, there is nothing to hand on to or bind Olmert's successor. "With [the Likud's Benjamin] Netanyahu coming in without the same ideological commitment or the same political will, he can easily say nothing was agreed and therefore he is not bound by anything," Baskin tells The Report.
Indeed, Baskin believes that Netanyahu will freeze the Palestinian track, and instead try to pick up where Olmert left off with the Syrians. He says the fact that the Syrians are presumably ready to begin direct talks and that the new American administration is willing to play a far more positive role than its predecessor, makes the Syrian option very attractive.
Like everyone else, he says, Netanyahu is well aware of the significance of detaching Syria from the Iranian axis. "I think Netanyahu will try to relieve American pressure over the Palestinians by working with them on the Syrian track. The entire military establishment in Israel believes the strategic advantages to be gained by moving forward with Syria are much greater than with the Palestinians. It's also far less complex. So I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Netanyahu moving quite quickly on the Syrian track," he avers.
Extract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
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