If Olmert Had Remained Prime Minister

What would have happened if Olmert had not been forced to resign?

Ehud Olmert, commentators agree, doesn’t come across as a saint in his acquittal; and we do not yet know what the verdict will be on the Holyland affair, where he is accused of significant crimes. In a way, the case of the State of Israel vs. Olmert shows that Israeli democracy is alive, well, and even impressive: a sitting Prime Minister was forced out of office because he was accused of misdoings. He got a fair trial, and was acquitted on most counts. The separation of powers is intact, and the judiciary, in the end, tends to work fairly.

I couldn’t help feeling a pang of pain and regret. I thought about what would have happened if Olmert had not been forced to resign, and how different Israeli history could have been!

Let me indulge in some counterfactual dreaming, then. In August 2008 Olmert continued his negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, and it became ever clearer that most contentious points were about to be resolved, and that the historic peace treaty was becoming a reality.

Because of Hamas’ popularity, Abbas was afraid that the peace agreement with Israel might be seen as treasonous by part of his constituency. He therefore quietly asked Olmert to open a back channel with Saudia Arabia, Egypt, the Emirates and a number of other Arab Countries. He wanted them to endorse the agreement to give it legitimacy in the Arab world.

Olmert realized that he had every interest to do so. After all, the agreement would not go down easily in Israel either. Israel’s right would do everything to torpedo the agreement that would put an end to its dream of the greater Land of Israel, and he was afraid of a violent reaction from the more extreme settlers.      

Olmert therefore wanted the Israel-Palestine agreement to be part of a regional settlement along the lines of the Arab League peace initiative. He hoped that he could present Israel’s electorate with no less than a regional settlement that would lead to full normalization with the whole Arab and almost the whole Islamic world.

The back channel was established quickly. The Swiss government succeeded in hosting the negotiations discretely, and the international media didn’t get wind of them for several months. Meanwhile Barack Obama had been elected President of the US and was briefed by George W. Bush of the momentous developments. Bush suggested that Obama make it a priority to bring peace to the Middle East: he assumed that this was now a real possibility.

In July 2009 Obama convened the event that shook the world: the rulers of the majority of Arab countries, the Palestinians and Israel’s highest echelon met in New York, and an agreement of principle was signed more or less along the Clinton parameters formulated in the year 2000. Its validity would depend upon ratification by the Palestinians and Israelis, and the Arab League would then officially recognize Israel and move towards full normalization within a year.

As part of the deal, Israel would become a full member of NATO and within two years of the implementation of the agreement a full member of the EU as well.

None of this went down calmly: Israel was in chaos. An attempt on Olmert’s life was successfully averted. The settlers tried to shut down the country; an extremist group was uncovered that was trying to blow up the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque. In parallel, a number of major terror attacks organized by Hamas were foiled at the last minute, and so were attempts to kill Mahmoud Abbas and Salaam Fayyad.

Olmert decided that the only way to give the peace agreement with the Arab world internal legitimacy was by a referendum, which was held early in 2010. Despite some violence and attempts to disrupt it, the referendum was held, and Israel’s electorate approved of the Peace Agreement with a resounding 72 % majority.  

In 2010 Olmert was reelected with and formed a national unity government that would implement the Peace agreement. By the end of 2011, Palestine was a full member of the UN and, Mahmoud Abbas was reelected as President of Palestine. Hamas popularity had plummeted, and the party decided to change its charter, and to accept the peace agreement.

So much for the counterfactual dream. Given that the Middle East is what it is, and Israel is what it is, even if Olmert would not have been forced to resign, something would probably have gone wrong; the process would have been longer and more tortuous than the one described in my little dream.

Nevertheless history would have looked differently. We would not have the most right leaning government in Israel’s history; we would have been spared some of the most shameful legislation the Knesset has ever passed. The two state solution would not be undermined systematically, and we would not be looking at an ever darkening future horizon of ever more illiberal legislation.

By forcing Olmert to resign in 2008 Israel adhered strictly to the rules of democracy; and it is to be hoped that the current coalition will not do more damage to these rules than it has already done in the last three years.