One day many years ago, Ehud Olmert’s photo graced the cover of the daily Maariv’s weekend magazine. A thick Cuban cigar rested in his hand, a top-brand watch adorned his wrist and a Montblanc pen nestled in his shirt pocket. He was leaning on the door of his house, which itself became the subject of corruption allegations.
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As someone who covered politics for Haaretz in those days and liked Olmert, I contacted him and told him “your image is ostentatious. If you’re aiming for Likud’s top spot, that image won’t serve you well.” His cool response was: “You really think so?” Arrogant as always, he never changed his behavior in any way.
He entered the public sphere after the Six-Day War, when generals drunk with victory took to cigars and high-quality whiskey on their way to political careers. When a defense minister unabashedly steals the nation’s archaeological treasures, politics reflects the start to a better life.
David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir lived modest lives. Before they were prime minister, they kept their offices in simple shacks, and they refused to accept generous offers from American millionaires. Begin, who wore a faded suit for his first public appearance, was offered millions by a millionaire so he could move out of the poor apartment in which he had hidden from the British.
But rubbing shoulders with American or European Jewish millionaires did appeal to other politicians and military men. When Ehud Barak was about to step down as chief of staff, he consulted a high-profile businessman on how to make a million dollars in his first year out of office.
The businessman had no answer, but Barak has made a lot more than that as a civilian, as a world-renowned consultant. Every success story like that stokes envy and makes others follow suit, just as Yitzhak Rabin’s path to the premiership inspired other chiefs of staff. If Rabin can, why can’t I, said Mordechai Gur, for example. And that wasn’t just in a political career, but in making money.
When I was appointed Haaretz’s West Europe correspondent based in Paris, I was warned by my legendary predecessor Shabtai Teveth that I’d have a hard life. “With the paltry Haaretz salary you’ll have a tough time mingling with the Jewish millionaires,” he told me.
He was right. But the defense minister at the time, Shimon Peres, who mingled with all the right millionaires and had all the right connections from one Rothschild to another, had no idea that Charles de Gaulle would impose an arms embargo “on the day you fire the first shot.” Rabin could whip out a thick wad of bills to pay for a meal at a fancy restaurant, while Benjamin Netanyahu used to smoke expensive Cuban cigars he received from Israeli film producer Arnon Milchan.
Olmert, the darling of American millionaires, loved the good life. He had no problem flying in their private jets to watch a basketball game on the West Coast, or to ensure a reduced rate at a fancy hotel. He stayed in spacious suites and rode in limousines. He also arranged for a New York exhibition for his wife’s paintings. I don’t have to note that all were sold.
The man who launched an anti-corruption campaign with Minister Yossi Sarid ended up being super corrupt in the Holyland affair and the cash-envelopes scandal. As a prime minister who vowed to pursue peace, someone who according to foreign media reports ordered the destruction of Syria’s nuclear reactor, someone who wanted to and was capable of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians, he proved that the sin of hubris is destructive in politics.
It’s a pity such a talented politician stumbled. It’s a shame that on this festival of freedom Olmert will be thinking about prison. That’s sad, very sad.