My Word: An open book

Olmert’s is likely to be a political autobiography which screams – like the headlines it has already engendered – “I’m still relevant.”

David Ben-Gurion once reportedly quipped: “Anyone who believes you can’t change history has never tried to write his memoirs.” The statement came to mind amid the furor raised by the part-published autobiography of Ehud Olmert, although there the comparison between Olmert and the country’s first prime minister basically ends.
Ben-Gurion answers the description of statesman – or at least meets the criteria of a great leader. Statesman is, perhaps, too grand a term for the politician whose election slogan branded him “the old man” (hazaken) and who retired to a humble home in the desert he wanted to help bloom.
Olmert, on the other hand, is still bogged down in legal proceedings regarding his far-from-humble abodes in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, his travel expenses and – from his period as Jerusalem mayor – the Holyland scandal which casts a shadow over him as ugly as the building complex itself.
You might be forgiven for thinking it was his handling of two wars – the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead – that brought him down after just two years as premier, but it wasn’t. It was the alleged corruption scandals.
Although since resigning in 2008 he has managed to shake off a few of the cases, others seem to be sprouting up like so many unlicensed Jerusalem buildings.
And now it seems that legal battles and wars in the North and South were not the only fronts on which he was fighting. The other war is what the press has been quick to dub the “Battle of the Ehuds” – former prime minister Ehud Olmert versus former prime minister and current defense minister Ehud Barak.
Justice Eliahu Winograd had not even finished writing the report on Lebanon II before the politicians began to write their version of the story, enabling Labor leader Barak to join the coalition. But this, it seems, did not end the power struggle between the two which last week so publicly became a war of words.
The two Ehuds might have been on the same page, it turns out, but they weren’t always reading the same book.
A GENEVA Initiative conference in Tel Aviv on September 19 served, in effect, as the first stop on the book tour for Olmert’s as yet unfinished memoirs. How 2010: First damn, then publish.
One of the main accusations that Olmert hurled at Barak was that he fought (unsuccessfully) to get into Kadima. Even more damning was Olmert’s statement: “I can’t write about security issues and not say who initiated daring steps, who tried to prevent the government from undertaking them by undermining [the efforts].
Every word is documented and authorized.” He as good as spelled out the accusation that Barak tried to prevent him from carrying out what could be his major achievement, the alleged Israeli attack in 2007 on a Syrian nuclear installation.
Barak naturally rejected the charges as “pathetic and unworthy of a response.” Incidentally, he might have the last laugh: As defense minister, Barak has authority over the military censor’s office, which could continue to prevent credit for the presumed operation from appearing in Olmert’s memoirs.
Olmert’s book is not a open-and-shut affair. It’s an ongoing work. Whether it counts as political science or fiction depends on who’s reading it. News of its imminent release and some of its contents in Yediot Aharonot over Yom Kippur seemed so symbolic it was probably part of the spin (and aimed at the public which had plenty of reading time on the day when even the most secular don’t drive).
There was a time, of course, when politicians were judged by their deeds rather than their PR. On the other hand, it was perhaps a sign of a lack of public scrutiny.
The problem of bribes, cronyism and possibly worse existed, of course, in Ben-Gurion’s day, when the ruling Mapai party was famous for its diet of “Vitamin P” – the euphemism for proteksia or patronage. Olmert, ironically, worked as a very young Knesset member, just 28, on a social justice and anti-corruption campaign.
Still, read into it what you will, it seems strange that the left-leaning Geneva Initiative invited Olmert as its guest speaker – not exactly the person most in keeping with the image of respectability it has tried to convey.
And Olmert has not previously been seen as one of the initiative’s supporters.
Nonetheless, his revelation that “the US would have been willing to accept 100,000 refugees,” providing a previously unknown detail of his negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, and his description of his offer as prime minister to the Palestinians, is probably far further left than his Revisionist parents could have imagined possible.
The details are also very much in keeping with the image he is obviously trying to present as a major player on the world stage, while his attack on Barak and barbs at Binyamin Netanyahu suggest he is preparing for a comeback.
As far as Olmert is concerned, the book – not the personality – is intended to sit on the shelf.
Perhaps it’s all part of the hype being offered by PR consultants.
But it makes me want to declare “no more,” as Olmert did in the early days of the Second Lebanon War against Hizbullah.
People are tired of war. They are also tired of spin. Fortunately, the public is not so tired that it can’t tell the difference.
At one point Olmert seemed to enjoy what is known in a uniquely Hebrew analogy as “etrog status,” the protected condition of the most valued of the Four Species used during Succot. He still needs a thick skin. As the battle of the Ehuds suggests, the fight for political survival continues.
It would take a creative writer indeed to turn Olmert into a Ben-Gurion in his memoirs. But he is part of a trend. Tony Blair’s A Journey, after all, has only just set out on its travels, similarly upsetting former political partners while presenting the ever-affable former British PM as a global ambassador of goodwill. And it has been suggested that Blair was following the Bill Clinton model. No longer do leaders retire and quietly write their memoirs, it seems. They write their memoirs as part of a greater promotion plan, on their way to better things.
Olmert’s is likely to be a political autobiography which screams – like the headlines it has already engendered – “I’m still relevant.” It is aimed at allowing the writer to turn over a new leaf and start a new chapter. It’s not an epilogue that is planned when Olmert’s legal battles are over. It’s a sequel.
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.