Middle Israel: Ehud Olmert: A political eulogy

Like Israel's first 11 premierships, Ehud Olmert's is ending as a tragedy.

olmert says fuck 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert says fuck 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
Israel has so far had 12 prime ministers, and not one of them retired peacefully and voluntarily. David Ben-Gurion resigned a bitter man surrounded by enemies; Moshe Sharett a narcissistic loser; Levi Eshkol never got over his loss of the Defense Ministry to Moshe Dayan on the eve of the Six Day War; Golda Meir and Menachem Begin were buried alive in the aftermaths of the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars; Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated; Ariel Sharon became a vegetable; and Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir were handed electoral humiliations. Ehud Olmert's premiership could have broken that pattern. Israel's first leader to have been no founding father, underground icon, retired general or former commando was handed three years ago an opportunity to become its first post-heroic leader, one who would focus on domestic affairs, shun military adventurism and introduce long-overdue reforms. Alas, Olmert couldn't stand the thought of being that first non-hero, and dedicated his arrival at the national helm to a futile effort to also become, at 61, a hero. Olmert's makeshift heroism began in the ideological realm and then proceeded to the military sphere. Ideologically, he stunned the entire political system, but first of all his own party, by shooting from the hip in winter '06 a commitment to abandon unilaterally the entire West Bank. It was his way to demonstrate an assertiveness of the sort Ariel Sharon had displayed only several months earlier when he had us leave Gaza. What Olmert forgot was that the West Bank was not Gaza and that he was no Sharon. A unilateral abandonment of the West Bank would potentially expose the entire Coastal Plain to what eventually happened in the South. No judgment of such a scheme's viability could be seriously made before the Gaza pullout would generate a good several years' worth of quiet. But Olmert couldn't resist this political gamble; he really hoped to emerge from his premiership not only a Sharon - that was too small for him - but a Ben-Gurion, a bold visionary and unlikely hero who would once and for all put away the Arab-Israeli conflict. In fact, Olmert committed himself to that idea without consulting, or even just nominally convening any forum - whether of government officials, generals, academics or even just his party colleagues. This adventurism alone cost Olmert's party a third of the 45 Knesset seats that polls had predicted for Kadima before Sharon's incapacitation. Still, Olmert remained unperturbed even after emerging from the March '06 election with a mere 29 seats. The aim, he said, was convergence, which meant restoring the West Bank settlers into pre-'67 Israel the way Gaza's settlers had been the previous summer. That is why the government he assembled was linchpinned by Labor, his aides explained. JUST HOW futile and aloof his designs in this regard were became manifest when he told AP during the Second Lebanon War - that is, with missiles fired from unilaterally abandoned lands pricking the entire North - that the war with Hizbullah was actually making convergence all the more relevant and urgent. What the war really did was bury the entire concept, which Olmert himself never again mentioned publicly. The war itself once again exposed Olmert as a frivolous, arrogant adventurer. Ordering the IDF to respond harshly to Hizbullah's provocation was right, but failing to verify in advance that the IDF was prepared was the exact same thing as brandishing convergence with no planning, insight or consultation. That is how the war was waged, that is how it was managed and that is how it ultimately looked. By the time the revelations concerning Olmert's alleged corruption came to light, they made sense; they simply fit the adventurist pattern with which the public had become familiar. It makes sense that someone who didn't think much before betting on 200 Jewish communities, and exposed a million people to rocket attacks without asking first what would happen to the population at their receiving end, would also not think enough before, allegedly, double-billing innocent charities for first-class flights and ultra-luxurious lodgings. Now Olmert's quest to join Israel's heroic leaders became a sad joke, and his post-heroic opportunity a distant memory. Instead, he became identified with a confidence crisis, the symbol of a zeitgeist of corruption that included Olmert's personal friends Haim Ramon and Avraham Hirchson, one a justice minister convicted of sexual misconduct, the other a finance minister now facing trial for - of all felonies - embezzlement. Yet as tragedies go, there was a brighter side to the Olmert premiership, a clear reminder that had he only been more humble he could have fared better, impacted deeper and lasted longer. OLMERT'S BIGGEST accomplishment was on the economy. No, he inspired no revolutions for better or worse. However, he resisted his main coalition partner Labor's demands to expand the budget and the deficit, and generally preserved the economic accomplishments he inherited from Binyamin Netanyahu. That is how under Olmert's leadership, while the global economy quaked, the Israeli economy remained generally stable on all fronts, from the deficit and the rate of unemployment to the rates of growth, exchange and interest. Naturally the economy, being only that big, and so dependent on exports, cannot avoid the impact of what is happening around it, and no one now has any delusions concerning the grim economic prospects for fiscal '09. However, the fact that no financial institution failed while Olmert was prime minister is a major accomplishment, one for which he will always deserve credit. A less civilian, and less post-heroic, prime minister would likely have been tempted back in '06 to breach the budget, thereby triggering the chain reaction of currency depreciation, cheap credit, overexposure to foreign financial adventurism and ultimately to abrupt capital flight and local financial collapses. In other words, domestically Olmert was the cautious politician he wasn't on the diplomatic and military fronts. Sadly, that caution also meant that he feared - or never had much interest in - heralding reforms, from changing the electoral system to adopting a constitution. But at least he kept the dams from bursting. Moreover, by the time of his political twilight, as he faced the new military challenge in Gaza - the one which was largely his passive creation - Olmert arrived educated. Paradoxically, the man who entered office with a great peace gospel is now bequeathing his successors a strategy of zero toleration for any infringements of Israeli sovereignty. Ironically, this is the tragic and heroic bottom line of what should have been Israel's first post-heroic and non-tragic premiership. www.MiddleIsrael.com Middle Israel now appears in The Jerusalem Post every first weekend of the month.