REALITY CHECK: Olmert’s legacy

Any consideration of his three years in office as prime minister shows it would be wrong to view Olmert solely as a villain.

Former PM Ehud Olmert  (photo credit: AMIT SHABAY/POOL)
Former PM Ehud Olmert
(photo credit: AMIT SHABAY/POOL)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who begins his 19-month prison sentence on Monday, now has plenty of time on his hands to consider his legacy. Given the fact that he is the first Israeli prime minister to sit behind bars, he will go down in history with this unpleasant definition accompanying any description of his career.
And deservedly so. Olmert was fairly convicted on bribery charges and of obstructing the course of justice, so he has earned his spell inside. But any consideration of his three years as prime minister (2006-9) shows that it would be wrong to view Olmert solely as a villain, and not just because the crimes he was convicted of had their roots in events long before he succeeded Ariel Sharon in the Prime Minister’s Office.
With the benefit of hindsight, the Second Lebanon War of 2006 is looking less the disaster than it was initially characterized to be. True, the Winograd Commission accused Olmert of failing to properly manage the war, and there were indeed plenty of failures, including in planning, intelligence, mobilization, execution, protection of the home front, and in the failure to terminate the war earlier and minimize Israeli casualties.
However, almost 10 years have now passed since the war and this has been the one of the quietest prolonged periods on the Israel-Lebanon border. As the respected military historian Martin van Creveld has noted, from 1968 until 2000, when Ehud Barak withdrew the last Israeli forces from south Lebanon, hardly a week went by without incident on Israel’s northern border or inside Israeli-controlled territory in Lebanon. Even after Israel’s withdrawal, major incidents such as sniping, rocket fire, artillery fire or attempts to kidnap Israeli soldiers continued to take place on average every three or four months, with Hezbollah’s kidnapping of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev sparking off the Second Lebanon War.
Now, not only has the border been, in relative terms, quiet since the end of the fighting, but Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has spent the past decade in hiding, only occasionally making a surprise public appearance. Immediately after the war, in an interview on Lebanese television, Nasrallah even went as far as to say that had he known Israel would respond to the kidnapping of Goldwasser and Regev with the force it did, then he would not have launched the operation that brought about the war.
OLMERT ALSO boosted Israel’s deterrence factor vis-à-vis Damascus, with the destruction of a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 which, given what has transpired since in Syria has been beneficial to the entire international community.
Unlike our present prime minister who made a long string of empty threats against the Iranian nuclear program and has nothing to show for his vain posturing, Olmert came to the conclusion that as the US was not prepared to act against the Syrian reactor, Israel had to do so.
George W. Bush wrote in his memoirs that Olmert initially asked the Americans to bomb the facility but that he refused, on the grounds that he did not have firm enough evidence the site was a weapons facility. Bush stressed in his book that he did not give the Israeli prime minister the green light to act and that Olmert did “what he believed was necessary to protect Israel.”
Importantly, so as not to further inflame tensions and force Syria into a reaction, Olmert never sought to make political capital out of this attack and for the first half-year ensured there was no official Israeli comment about it.
This policy was only broken by the pathetic need of then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, to inform the Israeli public that he had known about the operation and supported it.
Most importantly, Olmert recognized the urgency for Israel to arrive at an agreement with the Palestinians. At the Annapolis peace talks in late 2007, Olmert made clear that such an agreement was in Israel’s interest because “if the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.”
Unfortunately for Olmert and the State of Israel, Olmert’s legal problems led to him stepping down as prime minister and this, combined with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’ hesitation, and the effects of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza at the end of 2008, led to the collapse of these talks and, in retrospect following Netanyahu’s subsequent return to the Prime Minister’s Office, the hope for a two-state solution.
There is much cause for sadness in the sight of a former prime minister entering prison, but this missed opportunity for peace is perhaps the most searing regret.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.