Middle Israel: When Ehud Olmert met Groucho Marx

Our country cannot afford leaders who don't generate ideas, or don't respect them.

Olmert sits back 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Olmert sits back 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
After the 1996 elections, when most polls failed to predict Binyamin Netanyahu's victory, some pollsters - desperate for an explanation - wondered whether people had lied to them to intensify Labor's pre-election conceit and post-election despair. "No," said journalist Nahum Barnea at the time, "Israelis wouldn't do such a thing. They couldn't lie to the pollsters; they lied in the ballots." In the same spirit, one wants to believe that it isn't Ehud Olmert who has been lying to us all these years about his beliefs, that it's just us Shylocks who have been baselessly accusing him of humiliating us and rudely demanding a pound from the Merchant of Binyamina's flesh. Alas, the more we follow his career the more Olmert makes us wonder whether the dictionary that carries his definitions of conviction, commitment and principle has ever been written, and whether he ever truly believed in anything. This week, for instance, he abruptly undid one of mainstream Israel's only gains ever in its historic struggle to separate religion and state. Like Chris Moltisanti, The Sopranos' gangster who produced a film in which a "... butchered Mafioso's scattered limbs reconnect and his wretched soul resurrect", Olmert has this week reassembled and revived the notorious Religious Affairs Ministry after exhuming its limbs from the Religious Services Authority where they were unceremoniously buried. What Olmert is up to is clear: Shas wants more loosely supervised budgets and jobs in its pocket, and he wants more friends in his, as the Winograd Report's clouds gather. What is less clear is how Olmert thinks we, who unlike Eli Yishai actually voted for him, are going to stomach this kind of kick in the butt. Does he think we don't notice, or that we don't care, or that we won't respond? Well we do and we do and we will. But never mind that. Considering that Olmert was also there when the Religious Affairs Ministry was dismantled in 2003, the question is in which of the two times did he betray himself: when he turned his back on his longtime ultra-Orthodox allies who had crowned him Jerusalem mayor, or when he forsook that critical mass of his own voters who had previously voted Shinui? Olmert may not care, but Middle Israelis actually have a stand on this issue, and on all the others he so consistently evades. We think that for the sake of good governance and clean faith, religion and state should be kept away from each other, and that the Religious Affairs Ministry is a major instrument for joining them at the hip. Five years ago - that recently - when Olmert brokered the deal that sent Shas to the opposition and the Religious Affairs Ministry to the morgue, he boasted: "I am the one maintaining Sharon's coalition." Now the maintenance man is upon us again with his overalls, key chain and tool box, eager to do his number, asking energetically: "What have we today: A crack? A leak? A flooding?" and he just doesn't get it when we tell him that for hammers, nails, drills and all things related to screws, we can call Shas ourselves. From the prime minister we expect ideas, vision and conviction. EVIDENTLY, Olmert's assessment is that nobody here really cares for ideas anymore. From his viewpoint this is logical, for he doubtfully ever had a true conviction, one for which he stood throughout his career. Just like he hugged rabbis when it suited his career and then walked out on them when that suited it, he impersonated a Mr. Jerusalem when that helped him, only to later play Jerusalem divider when that suited him. Now one may say, "But he changed, like Rabin and Begin." Well, that's wrong. These people never abused ideas in order to ram a personal rival, as Olmert did when he promoted Ehud Barak's candidacy against Netanyahu's, snidely promising "Barak won't divide Jerusalem" - incidentally one year before Barak actually did try to divide Jerusalem. What did Olmert really mean when he made this patently disingenuous statement: Barak won't because I will? No, he meant to say that for him ideas are but merchandise. You weigh them, you package them, you sell them, then you buy others and sell them too. Like Groucho Marx, he effectively said: "These are my ideas; you don't like them - I'll change them." Take Olmert's stance on the education crisis. Never mind now the managerial scandal whereby teenagers were abandoned to roam the streets and malls for two months, and an entire country's academic fall semester has gone down the drain; think of the principle side: Did anyone understand what Olmert's views are concerning the school and university systems? Does he think Israel's teachers are good enough? If so, why are the students' international grades so poor? Should principals be empowered to hire and fire teachers? Why is the academic industry strapped - maybe it's inefficient and relies too heavily on government handouts? But Olmert doesn't deal with principles, only with situations, and there too primarily from the vantage point of his personal costs and benefits. Several months ago I asked Olmert's press office what he thought about electoral reform - an idea which Kadima originally hailed and even designated distinguished jurist Uriel Reichman to promote. Olmert's response was that he would only take a position on the issue once the Knesset itself addresses it, a prospect which he knows will not materialize anytime soon. In other words, why take positions on issues? Why have positions at all? I am anyhow prone to change them any day. Let others have positions; I will take sides once I see what's in any of them for me. The same went for the economy. As soon as circumstances allowed it, Olmert began to attack Netanyahu's economics for their social cost, even while the two served in the same cabinet. Yet once he succeeded him, Olmert left Bibi's reforms intact. So why attack him in the first place? Because to him expediency is everything and ideas are nothing. Once I am here, once I am there, and the people are idiots anyhow, it's just those journalists and academics who take me to task, but how many divisions do they have? Back when he presented the disengagement plan - which of course was someone else's idea (geographer Arnon Sofer's) and which he shrewdly calculated would be worth backing with Ariel Sharon executing it - Olmert said the time had come for Ben-Gurionesque decisions. Olmert said this over Ben-Gurion's grave; under it, Ben-Gurion was turning. Even his enemies agree that Ben-Gurion was not only a man of great decisions, but also of original ideas and unflinching convictions. Where is Olmert and where is any of that? Some countries can afford leaders who don't generate ideas, and some can also afford ones who don't even respect ideas. Not ours. The Jewish state is thirsting for new ideas, believers and fighters - even more than Olmert is thirsting for yet another day at its helm. www.MiddleIsrael.com