The image of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, now 70, entering Maasiyahu Prison to serve a 19-month sentence for bribery and obstruction of justice is a shocking stain on the entire nation.
To witness such a talented man fall to such depths saddened me.
I befriended Olmert after hosting him in Australia in the 1980s, where he made a tremendous impact on the community and built up a cadre of friends who admired him. Subsequently, I spent many hours with him in the Knesset, in his ministerial offices, and was especially close to him when he became mayor of Jerusalem.
Olmert was a consummate politician and fundraiser, an outstanding networker with an engaging personality and a well-deserved reputation of loyalty to his friends.
Ironically, following in his father’s footsteps and being elected to the Knesset as the youngest MK, his initial impact was a vigorous campaign against corruption.
He opposed the peace treaty with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat but subsequently mended his fences with Prime Minister Menachem Begin and rose within the ranks of Likud, serving a term as an exemplary health minister in the Shamir government.
Olmert was a leader in the national camp, bitterly opposed the Oslo Accords, sought to close Orient House, the PLO’s headquarters in Jerusalem, and even demanded the right of Jews to pray on the Temple Mount.
In 1993, he was elected mayor of Jerusalem, defeating the longstanding and legendary Teddy Kolleck. For 10 years as mayor he was a champion for a united Jerusalem. When Prime Minister Ehud Barak floated the idea of dividing the capital in an unsuccessful effort to coax Yassir Arafat to agree to a settlement, Olmert organized a massive global meeting in support of a united Jerusalem, attended by 300,000 people.
In 2003, Olmert reentered the Knesset as a member of Sharon’s government, serving for three years as minister of industry, trade and labor.
In a shocking display of crude political opportunism, the right wing Likud leader with a Revisionist background became, virtually overnight, Prime Minister Sharon’s most aggressive and effective proponent of the disastrous unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip. He was brutal and even cruel in the mocking of his former friends and allies and trivialized the forcible eviction of the Gush Katif settlements. At that stage, I became one of his most fervent critics.
Olmert’s volte-face was reflected in a keynote speech he gave to the left-wing American-based Israel Policy Forum in June 2005, when he stated, “We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies.”
Having secured for himself the title of Deputy Prime Minister, he was able to seize the reins of leadership when Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke.
In July 2006, Olmert led the nation into the disastrous Second Lebanon War. In response to public outrage over the conduct of the war, Olmert himself handpicked a Commission of Inquiry, headed by retired Judge Eliyahu Winograd, which nevertheless produced a scathing report, condemning the zigzagging policies that prevailed during the 34 days of the war and culminated in “a major and grave missed opportunity” to inflict a major defeat of Hezbollah and restore Israel’s deterrence. The report employed the term “failure” 190 times and “flaws” 213 times.
Following the publication of the report, polls indicated that 80% of Israelis felt Olmert should resign immediately as prime minister. But he made a mockery of any form of accountability, contemptuously dismissing the report and public opposition, and even had the chutzpah to claim that the findings had exonerated and “lifted the moral stigma” from him.
In 2007, Olmert participated in the revived peace talks in Annapolis, Maryland, where he virtually adopted the Palestinian narrative, stating that “for dozens of years, many Palestinians have been living in camps, disconnected from the environment in which they grew, wallowing in poverty, neglect, alienation, bitterness and a deep, unrelenting sense of deprivation. … I know that this pain and humiliation are the deepest foundations which fomented the hatred against us.” Abbas ignored Olmert’s groveling remarks, stressing that the Palestinians would never recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Olmert told the Israeli media that unless a Palestinian state would be created, the Jewish state would be engaged in apartheid and “the State of Israel is finished.”
Desperate to rehabilitate his political reputation and retrieve his legacy – and without consulting the Knesset or cabinet – Olmert offered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas 98% of the West Bank, forgoing defensible borders and Israel’s security presence along the Jordan River. Furthermore, he agreed to divide Jerusalem and was even willing to yield jurisdiction of the Temple Mount to a multinational committee. He also undertook to allow a number of Arab refugees to settle inside Israel without any reference to restitution for Jews expelled from Arab countries in 1948.
Fortunately for Israel, like his predecessor Arafat, Abbas rejected Olmert’s proposals and even failed to make a counter offer and merely repeated his demand of the “right of return” for all Palestinian refugees, which would have amounted to the dissolution of the Jewish state.
In retrospect, Olmert proved to be the worst prime minister Israel has known. The irresponsible unauthorized offers he extended to the Palestinians are to this day being exploited by them as a benchmark for reopening negotiations.
Like many politicians, Olmert absorbed the hedonistic environment in which he circulated. Being in a position of power with the absence of adequate checks and balances, he became engaged in questionable and corrupt deals.
This led to allegations of corruption and ultimately, in September 2008, Olmert was forced by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to relinquish his prime ministerial role, though he remained in office until Benjamin Netanyahu took over in March 2009.
The initial verdict of the Jerusalem District Court, prior to the “Holyland” trial, while highly critical of his conduct and finding him guilty of a breach of trust – a criminal offense – did not impose a prison sentence.
At the time, I wrote a column titled “Olmert: Count your blessings and retire graciously.” Unfortunately Olmert went on a triumphalist rampage insisting (incorrectly) that he had been fully exonerated, and proclaimed that he would soon resume his role as prime minister. He embarked on a global campaign to discredit the Netanyahu government and identified himself with far-leftists, even giving the keynote address to J Street.
His subsequent trials, which culminated in his conviction and a six-year sentence reduced to 19 months – which pending another case still to be determined could be extended to 27 months – represent a shameful reflection of the abysmally low level of personal morality to which some Israeli politicians have descended. Sadly, Olmert follows in the footsteps of a former president convicted of rape, an interior minister of bribery, a finance minister of embezzlement and social welfare minister of bribery. On the positive side, at least it demonstrates that in Israel, nobody is above the rule of law.
Without diminishing his moral corruption, my feeling is that Olmert’s devastating role in the Second Lebanon War and his groveling to the Palestinians will have a far greater negative long-term impact on Israel than the activities for which he was sentenced to jail.
Having said that, I am saddened and will nostalgically relate to the Ehud Olmert before he betrayed his ideals – a man who did good things for the Jewish people before being possessed by a dybbuk.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom