Rattling the Cage: The other Olmert

Corrupt, but still very humane, and very Israeli.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
I was watching Ehud Olmert on TV choking up during the funeral of his close friend Tommy Lapid, and I was reminded that the prime minister, for all his corruption, is a man who seems to have a good heart. He has no business remaining in office anymore, he should have resigned a month ago, but from what I've learned about his personal life, this is a man who really does care about people, not just himself. It sounds silly and sentimental, but I can't help but feel sympathy for him and his wife over what they're going through with this "envelopes" scandal, which is almost certainly going to force him out of his job early, if not send him to jail. I was surprised to find out about Olmert's sensitivity and generosity because it completely contradicts the way he comes off in public, which is arrogant, vain, selfish and cynical. The first time I saw a different Olmert was in 1996, also during a televised clip from a funeral - that of his friend Nahum Barnea's son, Yonatan, who was killed in a Jerusalem bus bombing. Barnea was giving the eulogy and Olmert, then mayor of Jerusalem, was standing there with tears streaming down his face. Maybe I have a stereotyped image of politicians as unfeeling, self-obsessed phonies, but the picture of Ehud Olmert crying openly at a funeral just clashed with the way I'd thought of him. (Full disclosure: I don't know Olmert, I never voted for him, and I only interviewed him once, for maybe two minutes, when he was walking to his car in Jerusalem about a decade ago.) Then there was the story I read about the staff farewell at the Health Ministry when Olmert left to become mayor of Jerusalem, and the cleaning woman told everyone about his morning ritual. She said he would get to the office very early, when she was the only one around, then he would make them both a cup of coffee and they would shoot the breeze for 15 minutes before he started work. Ehud Olmert? Making coffee for the cleaning woman and having a private conversation with her every morning? How many government ministers in Israel or any other country do that sort of thing? Another story I read was about how Olmert looked after the family of Shmuel Meir, a Jerusalem deputy mayor killed in a car accident several years ago - how he made a point of visiting the Meirs' home every Shabbat, how he became like a godfather to the children. Yet another thing in Olmert's favor is that he and his wife adopted a daughter when they already had three children. Whatever there is to say against him as a politician and public official, on a personal level, this is plainly a good man. Maybe it's his wife who kept his human side alive. She's great. She's like the godmother of the Darfur refugees in Israel, they write songs about her. She's an artist, a peacenik, and whatever you think of her politics, I think it shows unusual open-mindedness in Olmert that even when he was a true-blue Eretz Yisrael right-winger, he could live happily, as far as anyone can tell, with a wife and children who probably voted Meretz. If we care at all about the personal character of the prime minister, and we do, do you want to compare Olmert's history as a family man to that of Binyamin Netanyahu or Ehud Barak? Speaking of whom, I've never seen a glimpse of humanity in either, nor have I come across any accounts of hidden warmth. When it involves either of those two, I enjoy a good scandal tremendously. BUT TO go on in my silly, sentimental vein about Olmert, I like it that he hasn't stopped following soccer like the addict he is - again, it humanizes him, it makes him seem like a down-to-earth guy, and it's reassuring to be able to recognize the prime minister of your country as a down-to-earth guy. And it's not just the soccer - he's a total hevreman, a social animal. He likes being around people, grabbing hold of them, joking with them, plotting with them, fighting with them, trading insults with them. He seems to get a real kick out of life, which is nice in a national leader. It's a healthy sign. He's shrewd, he's sly, he's a know-it-all - in every way, Ehud Olmert is as Israeli as they come, and his corruption is one more part of his Israeliness. Let's face it, Israelis are generally not bothered by such things as conflicts of interest, they live by the creed of "it's not what you know, it's who you know," they're not straight arrows about money or anything else. There are, of course, plenty of honest, ethical people in Israel, probably even in Israeli politics, but honest, ethical behavior is not the standard in this country. It's more like an option. But just because there's a great deal of crookedness in this country doesn't mean, of course, that it should be embraced. There's no way somebody can be prime minister with five criminal investigations being pursued against him, and when he's at a loss to deny that he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and never told anybody about it. Please. This is ridiculous, Olmert should have been gone already. At some point, probably in a matter of months, he will be. I don't think he's been a bad prime minister; his performance during the Second Lebanon War wasn't any worse than anybody else's. And I don't see anybody, from the Right or Left, who's got a "solution" for Gaza, or the West Bank, or Hizbullah, or Iran. Yes, he's corrupt, and he's arrogant, but that's not exactly rare among Israeli contenders for the prime minister's office. What may be rare to find in that most ambitious of circles is someone who still has a good, simple heart, who is a loyal friend, who has time and regard for the cleaning woman, and even when there are no cameras around. It's too bad what's happening to this prime minister, how his fatal flaw, or flaws, are bringing him down. I could even say it's a little tragic.