Middle Israel: Ehud Olmert: Preliminary biographical dilemmas

The prime minister's fast-expiring premiership justifies a solid biography.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Ehud Olmert's fast-expiring premiership, and the lengthy decades during which he grazed in the Israeli public arena prior to conquering its holy of holies, justify a solid biography. Not the kind that sprouts here instantaneously the morning after this or that drama, death or scandal, woefully shorn of the perspective, depth and documentation this genre requires, but the kind that is written a good several decades after its subject is long gone. All biographers, besides of course being judged by their prose and research, rise or fall on their theses about their subjects' impact, thought, character and conduct. The better they are, the more accurately they balance the coincidental with the premeditated, and the personal with the historic, before they emerge with arguments concerning the extent to which a great figure either shaped or was shaped by historic events and processes. Some found fixed patterns in all biographies. Goethe believed historic figures were mere reflections of their times, and Tolstoy that they were altogether toys in the hands of great predestined forces. Thomas Carlyle, on the other hand, thought history was but the biography of great men. And William James ascribed historic transition to geniuses who detected "the receptiveness of the moment," ones "whose accidental position of authority was so critical that they became... initiators of movements, settlers of precedent or fashion, centers of corruption or destroyers of other persons whose gift - had they had free play - would have led society into another direction." Most biographies fall somewhere between these extreme poles. Not Olmert's. For the man who is now drowning in the Bermuda Triangle he created among his lawyer, secretary and donor was the ultimate non-shaper of history, and the quintessential reflection of a milieu that reached power on other people's shoulders, and once there dedicated itself to its abuse. OLMERT'S BIOGRAPHY will comprise three major sections: Maneuver, delivery and morality. A short discussion of the Jerusalem mayoralty can serve as a prelude to what will likely be remembered as Israel's most embarrassing political years. The cultural stagnation, demographic decay, physical disrepair and political dead end into which Jerusalem fell under his leadership starkly contrasted with his legendary predecessor Teddy Kollek's accomplishments. A biographer may see in that period an unnoticed warning sign that Olmert was not a man of causes, and that he was driven by a craving for pleasure, luxury, prestige and raw power rather than a quest, or even just an appreciation for ideas and impact, let alone greatness. Olmert likes to say that as mayor he focused on long-term projects, like Begin Boulevard and the light railway system, itself an admission that during nearly a decade as mayor he produced not even one municipal landmark - a theater, a stadium, a museum, a library, a university, a conservatory, a central park, a bicycle path, a planetarium, a zoo, something. As for the infrastructure projects, Olmert's biographer will note that in Israel such multibillion-dollar schemes are planned, approved and financed mainly through the national government, and as such offer no excuse to avoid a mayor's bread and butter. A few brief pages about Olmert's mayoralty can therefore open the biography as a kind of emblem to the cynicism that characterized his entire political career, and then lead to a chapter titled "Political Acrobat." Here the biographer will run through Olmert's entire career so as to reconstruct the squirming path it ran between two ideological poles, three disparate patrons and four odd parties. This bird's-eye view will raise some of the big riddles of the Olmert career: How does one glide between archrivals like Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon, or Shmuel Tamir and Menachem Begin? How does one proceed from outflanking the Likud from the right, as Olmert did when he would not vote for Begin's peace treaty with Egypt, all the way to outflanking Labor from the left, as he did when he offered to cede the West Bank even without a peace agreement? And how does the same person spend one part of a career fashioning ultra-Orthodoxy as his strategic ally, and then - literally the following morning, as Sharon's political broker - replace that inclination with a coalition linchpinned by the ultra-liberal Shinui? Then, in a chapter titled "Big Words," Olmert's biographer will probe his delivery problem. How was it that wherever he arrived as an executive, he left a yawning gap between words and deeds? As health minister, why did he fail to deliver on his promise to commercialize the hospitals? As mayor, how did he get away with abandoning Jerusalem to ultra-Orthodoxy after destroying its secular politics? As deputy prime minister, why did he attack Binyamin Netanyahu's reforms, but then, as finance minister and prime minister, fail to actually undo them? What made the former Greater Israelite a super-dove? Was there some epiphany - an external event, a local encounter, a sliver of intelligence, a conversation with a foreign visitor - that made him produce one of the most spectacular moments in the history of U-turns? Would the Gaza pullout - or anything else in Israeli history - have turned out differently but for Olmert? INTRIGUING AS all these questions are, and enriching as they will surely prove for Olmert's biography, they still will pale - literally, if not historically - compared with the chapter titled "The Moral Slide." The question raised here will surely dominate the Olmert enigma, and demand psychological insight more than political analysis: How does one start off as Elliot Ness only to end as Spiro Agnew? How does one launch a legislative career as a crusader against organized crime, only to become a serial beggar of cash donations, and for what: for a few hours' snooze in a first-class couch? For several nights' room service in a presidential suite? Maybe Olmert's career was never driven by ideas in the first place, but by a disorder, or a trauma? How many people do you and I know who suffer from a weakness such as Olmert's for banalities like prestige watches, fountain pens and Cuban cigars? Here Olmert's biographer will have to probe his childhood and adolescence, which actually were happy, other than that they were spent watching his father languish as an irrelevant backbencher in a perennial opposition faction; a political cockroach condemned to watch on helplessly, year in, year out for decades as others indulged in power and its perks. Maybe this endless insult to his father is what made power and its trappings - never mind where, how, at what cost and for what purpose - the Olmert career's ultimate Promethean fire? It will take decades for these questions to be answered by their proper and well documented biography. What for now is clear is that Olmert - never mind just when, how and why - has long ceased to stand for anything that justifies leading the Jewish state; and this alone, whether or not it also involved violations of the law, means the political chapter in his biography must now end. www.MiddleIsrael.com