Olmert: One of Israel’s Best Prime Ministers But, Sadly, Corrupt

For nearly three decades Olmert walked a fine line between the permitted and the forbidden.

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Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, center, waits before the start of a hearing in his trial for corruption linked to a major property development on March 31, 2014 at Tel Aviv District Court.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, center, waits before the start of a hearing in his trial for corruption linked to a major property development on March 31, 2014 at Tel Aviv District Court.Credit: AFP
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Young civics students who take a look at the festive photograph of the 31st government of Israel that was taken at the swearing-in ceremony in May 2006 will ask themselves: What was going on there? Is this for real? Did they really lead the only democracy in the Middle East just six or seven years ago?

It can’t be, they will say to themselves, that the president in the middle of the picture was convicted of rape and sent to jail, that the prime minister sitting next to him was convicted of bribery, that the grandfather-like finance minister was convicted of embezzlement and that the smiling justice minister was convicted of a sexual offense. But it is, and Olmert’s conviction on Monday for accepting bribes to facilitate the construction of Jerusalem’s Holyland apartment complex puts him on a path to prison.

For nearly three decades, Olmert has, while serving in a variety of public positions, been walking a fine line between the permitted and the forbidden, the criminal and the public, the bearable and the intolerable. Time after time, starting in the mid-1980s, he escaped the clutches of the law. This series of allegations gave rise to two schools of thought: either that Olmert was fundamentally corrupt yet smart and talented, or that the law enforcement authorities had an out-of-control Olmert obsession. Proponents of the first school of thought argued that Olmert was the embodiment of political corruption, while those who espoused the second viewpoint cried out that Olmert was being harassed and should be left alone.

Monday was a victory for those who claimed all along that Olmert was a model of corruption, and for the much-battered prosecutors who got a boost after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s acquittal on corruption charges in November.

But Olmert’s removal from the political scene doesn’t actually have a direct influence on the political system itself. Before the last general election more than a year ago, many people wondered: Would Olmert make a comeback or wouldn’t he? Will he pick a fight with Benjamin Netanyahu or not? Olmert pondered and deliberated, and at the last minute stayed on the outside. Turns out that was a good thing.

Even as serious political figures like Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz waited with baited breath to find out whether the has-been wanted to come back, he was not a popular candidate among much of the public. His supporters primarily came from the elite center-left camp, people from the fields of communications, security and economics.

Another candidate who briefly raised similar hopes was former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. Both Ashkenazi and Olmert were unable to join the political fray for a time, but there’s a huge difference between them: Ashkenazi is innocent but involved in the tangled Harpaz affair, while Olmert will likely keep the courts busy for years. Without these two players in the mix, it is difficult at the moment to foresee any candidate who could prevent Benjamin Netanyahu from winning a fourth term as prime minister.

Ehud Olmert was a good prime minister, maybe one of the best Israel has had, from many perspectives. He was good at running the coalition and the cabinet, and at building relationships with world leaders. His levelheadedness in the face of complex and fateful security decisions that prevented undesirable scenarios from unfolding in the region was an asset, as was his courage and willingness to reach out further toward the Palestinians than his predecessors had done. Even the Second Lebanon War seems more reasonable eight years on, in light of its power of deterrence and the quiet that has prevailed in the north since August 2006.

It was mostly Olmert who missed out, but, according to many, it was us too.

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