Living among us are two former prime ministers. The first is Ehud Barak, who served in the position from 1999-2001. He is a brilliant man, sharp and witty, but also controversial. The second is Ehud Olmert, who served in the position from 2006-2009.
As a young man, Olmert served as secretary of the Free Center party, which was led by Shmuel Tamir. In 1974, at age 28, Olmert was elected to the Knesset representing Likud, becoming Israel’s youngest lawmaker. In his first term, he focused on the fight against corruption and organized crime, together with Yossi Sarid, then a Labor Party lawmaker. But over the years his conduct changed. He established a law firm, used his political connections to advance its business and began to operate on the edge of the law. One notable example was the $50,000 dollar loan he received in 1985 from the Bank of North America, without being asked to repay it.
In 1988, Yitzhak Shamir brought Olmert into his government, and in 1993 Olmert did something that was considered stunning: He challenged Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, who had served in the position for 28 years, and beat him. Unlike his predecessor, who saw governing the capital as a lifetime job, Olmert viewed it as a stepping stone to the national stage. After 10 years, in 2003, he joined the second government of Ariel Sharon.
Olmert didn’t get a top cabinet appointment, since they were all taken. Sharon made him minister of industry, trade and labor and, as compensation, acting prime minister. After Sharon collapsed with a stroke, in January 2006, Olmert became interim prime minister — reaching the top through a stroke of luck.
After the election of the 17th Knesset, Olmert formed the new government. His Kadima party was the main partner in the coalition, together with the Labor Party. Likud, Olmert’s former political home, found itself in the opposition after years in power. His public position in this period was very precarious. After the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Olmert was the subject of a long series of criminal investigations that eventually led to his resignation as prime minister, his conviction and his imprisonment. But despite all of this, a few aspects of his conduct are, in my opinion, deserving of admiration.
The first and primary one is the change in his attitude toward the peace process. Olmert grew up in a Revisionist home. His father, Mordechai Olmert, was a Knesset member for Herut, for whom “the territorial integrity of the homeland” was a sacred principle. When Ehud Olmert entered politics he also championed this principle, and Tamir, his patron, coined the slogan “Liberated territory should never be returned.” As an MK, Olmert opposed the 1978 Camp David Accords, the framework for Israeli-Egyptian peace. Before it was submitted to the Knesset for approval, Prime Minister Menachem Begin tried, and failed, to obtain his support.
In his (Hebrew-language) autobiography, Olmert wrote: “He was right, I was wrong. It’s clear that I should have voted for the agreement. To think we could have been stuck for more decades in Sinai, with the interminable military reserve duty, at a cost of billions of dollars and with the constant fear of a war that could spread to additional fronts.”
As a member of Sharon’s cabinet, Olmert adopted the view that the occupation could destroy Israel’s values. The Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea wrote of this during this period: “One has a fierce desire to rub one’s eyes. The acting prime minister... calls, in effect, for a unilateral withdrawal from most of the territories and parts of East Jerusalem, and the Land of Israel’s separation into two states, the border between them set not in accordance with political heritage, national feeling or religious tradition but rather in accordance with demographics” (Yedioth Ahronoth, Dec. 5, 2003).
During Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip, Olmert was the right-hand man of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and as prime minister himself he succeeded in thawing the chilly relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and in signing the agreement to renew security coordination with it, after seven years. Beyond this, Olmert’s goal was to carry out the Labor Party program, withdrawal from the territories in exchange for a durable peace. It could be argued that the change within him was not only political and diplomatic but also emotional, a recognition that the path he was raised to follow was wrong.
Two enormous differences between Olmert and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are also admirable. The first: In September 2007, Olmert decided to destroy a nuclear reactor that Syria had built with assistance from North Korea. The operation, which was a significant strategic accomplishment, could have improved his public image, but Olmert did not even drop a hint about it. The second: Despite being panic-stricken over being tried and possibly sent to prison, in his fight to avoid prosecution he did not try to harm the gatekeepers, including the courts, as Netanyahu has done.
There are indeed black marks on Olmert’s public record. But he also deserves respect for the restraint he demonstrated during the most difficult period of his life.
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