Ehud Olmert’s resignation speech reached us on our way back from a demonstration.
We were protesting the death of Ahmad Moussa, aged 10, who was murdered during a demonstration against the Separation Fence at Na’ilin village – the fence that robs the village of most of its land in order to give it to the nearby settlement. A soldier aimed and shot the child with live ammunition at close range.
The protesters stood under the windows of the Minister of Defense’s apartment in the luxurious Akirov Towers in Tel-Aviv and shouted: “Ehud Barak, Minister of Defense / How many children have you murdered so far?”
A short while later, Olmert spoke about his strenuous efforts to achieve peace, and promised to continue them until his last day in office.
The two events – the demonstration and the speech – are bound together. Together they provide an accurate picture of the era: peace speeches in the air and atrocities on the ground.
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I AM not about to join the choir of retrospective heroes, who are now falling upon Olmert’s political corpse and tearing it to pieces.
Not an attractive sight. I have seen this happen several times in my life, and every time it disgusts me.
This phenomenon is not particular to Israel. It can be found in the history and literature of many times and places: “The Rise and Fall of…”
It’s an old story. People grovel in the dust at the feet of their hero. The ambitious and avaricious prance around him. Court-poets and court-jesters sing his praises, and their modern successors – the media people – extol his virtues. And then, one day, he falls from his pedestal and they trample all over him without mercy and without shame.
This is the mob that idolized Moshe Dayan after the Six-day War, and then smashed his statue into pieces after the Yom-Kippur war. The mob that kicked David Ben-Gurion viciously after years of boundless flattery. That toppled Golda Meir after following her blindly. I certainly struggled against all three of them when they were at the height of their power, but the rush of the political mob to trample upon their bodies after they had fallen was simply loathsome.
Now this is happening again. I have never been captivated by the charms of Ehud Olmert. I have followed his career from the moment he appeared on the stage to the moment he announced his resignation. I saw nothing to arouse my admiration. But now, when I see and hear the outpouring of abuse upon him by those who exalted him to high heavens only yesterday, I feel like averting my eyes. The right to criticize him is reserved for those who have struggled against him over the years.
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HE IS a total politician, and nothing else. Not a statesman. Not a leader. Not a man with a vision. Only a political technician. Intelligent. A very smooth speaker. I friend among friends. A politician for whom power is the aim, not a means to achieve an aim.
The first time I came across him was almost 40 years ago. He was then an assistant of Shmuel Tamir, in the most concrete sense: he assisted him in carrying his bags.
Before this, something had happened that was to characterize the whole career of this ambitious man. Tamir, then a young Knesset member for the Herut party (today’s Likud), thought he had an opportunity to topple Menachem Begin and take over the party. He tried to push him out during the party convention, and for a moment it seemed that he would succeed. Begin, then 53, seemed totally worn-out after suffering six consecutive election defeats. Olmert, then 21, jumped onto the rebels’ bandwagon and made a passionate speech against the legendary leader.
But his calculations were faulty. Begin sprang into action and delivered a death blow to the conspirators. They were thrown out of the party in disgrace. Olmert remained with the tiny faction around Tamir, which presented itself as a moderate party, attuned to the peace-seeking mood of the country at the time, mocking the nationalistic stance of Herut (“Both sides of the Jordan belong to us”). But then the Six-day War changed the public mood completely, the weathercock turned and Tamir coined the popular slogan “Liberated Territory shall not be Returned!” Without batting an eyelid, Olmert the moderate turned into Olmert the extremist.
But in that small faction there were too many chiefs and not enough Injuns. The road to advancement was blocked. Before long, Olmert engineered a split in order to become the No. 2 in an even smaller faction. He later split that one too and pushed out its veteran leader, Eliezer Shostak. The proceedings bordered on farce: Olmert ran off with the faction’s rubber stamp.
After the 1973 elections, Olmert return to the Likud at long last and became candidate No. 24 on the party’s election list. Before that he had not been idle: he finished law school and flourished financially, using his connections in the Knesset and the corridors of power for his clients’ benefit. That’s when he perfected the method of exploiting the connections between power and money, a method that he practiced ever since and that eventually caused his downfall.
In the Knesset, the young member was looking for a way to attract attention. At the time, the media invented “organized crime”, long before it came into being. (A wag jested: “In Israel, nothing is organized. So how come crime is suddenly organized?”) Olmert smelled a horse he could ride on. He made rousing speeches, waved papers in the style of Joe McCarthy, presented himself as a valiant fighter against the criminals and reaped a lot of publicity. It was an empty performance: even the police chiefs confirmed that it did not contribute anything to the struggle against crime. But it was a good example of what later came to be known as “spin”.
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IN 1977, Menachem Begin came to power. But he had not the least intention of promoting the man who, 11 years earlier, had tried to stick a knife in his back. Among his other strengths, Begin had a good memory. When Olmert saw that his career in the Knesset was going nowhere, he decided in 1993 to make an Olympic jump: he declared his candidacy for the office of Mayor of Jerusalem.
Mayor Teddy Kollek was popular, but old and tired. Olmert won. Today there is general agreement about his tenure: he was a bad mayor. The city deteriorated, poverty increased, young people left for other places and the Arab neighborhoods were criminally neglected. In 1996, he pushed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu into opening a tunnel leading from the Western Wall to the Muslim quarter, causing a conflagration that killed 17 Israeli soldiers and almost 100 Palestinians. He never expressed any remorse.
He also pushed for the creation of the Har Homa settlement between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which has caused unending friction with the Palestinian community. All the recent attacks in Jerusalem were carried out by youngsters who grew up in the Arab neighborhoods adjacent to Har Homa. Olmert presented himself as the Judaizer of Jerusalem and as a fearless national fighter.
But when he ran for Likud chairman in 1999, he was easily beaten by Ariel Sharon. He got only the 32nd place on the Likud election list (out of 38 who won Knesset seats). His rational reaction was to get on Sharon’s wagon and push him into leaving the Likud and creating a new party, Kadima.
That was a successful bet, testifying to his sharp political senses. Under Sharon he became the de facto No. 2 of the new party and Sharon’s official “Deputy Prime Minister” (as a consolation prize, after Sharon could not give him the Treasury but only the far less important Ministry of Industry and Trade). At the time it looked like an empty title, but when Sharon suffered a stroke, Olmert adroitly took over his job. The long and meandering road had finally led to the summit.
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SHARON’S SUCCESSOR was his opposite in almost every respect. Sharon was a rather maladroit politician and a poor speaker, but a determined leader with a clear political vision. He had an aim and strove towards it consistently. Olmert is a politician, soul and body, a complete opportunist and a smooth speaker, but lacks charisma and has no vision. He is satisfied with the routine mantra of a democratic, Jewish state.
After coming to power through the accident of Sharon’s stroke, he tried at first to look as if he was following the same path. Sharon wanted to turn Israel into a strong, compact state by annexing the settlement blocs and leaving the Arab enclaves to a weak “Palestinian state”. For this purpose he carried out the Gaza “separation”. Olmert promised to do the same in the West Bank, but gave up the idea almost immediately. Throughout his term of office he invented grandiose schemes at a dizzying rate, with each of them doing little more than providing fuel to his spin-machine.
His incompetence as a leader and commander soon revealed itself. Lebanon War II was a disastrous scandal. The media, which had applauded enthusiastically at the beginning of the war, attacked him after the event for its “faulty execution”, but ignored the main failure: the very decision to go to war without a clear and realistic aim and without a political and military strategy.
His incompetence as statesman and strategist was equaled by his competence as politician and survival artist. The fact that he held on for an additional two years after such a monumental failure testifies to his political acumen, but also to the degeneration of the Israeli political system.
After the war he was desperately in need of a new horse to ride. He chose the “political process” – negotiations with the Palestinians, and later on also with the Syrians.
This choice is significant: his sensitive political nose smelled that this is now the really popular thing: not Greater Israel, not the settlements, but peace negotiations and “two states for two peoples” – the more so as this was already popular with the US and Europe.
This week, Arab leaders complained that now “the political process will begin again from Square One.” That is a complete misunderstanding: the “process” has never left Square One. It was wholly without content, wholly “spin”. The “process” has become a substitute for peace, the idea of a “shelf agreement” a substitute for a real peace agreement. There was never any possibility that Olmert would dare to provoke the settlers.
The final summing-up of the Olmert era: not the smallest real step toward peace has been taken. The historic peace initiative of the Arab League has been buried. The secular, peace-seeking Palestinian leadership has been almost destroyed, paving the way for the Hamas takeover in the Gaza strip, and perhaps also in the West Bank. Not one single hut in a settlement was dismantled, and the settlements have been enlarged everywhere.
In one respect, Olmert resembled Sharon: they both loved money almost as much as power (as do Netanyahu and Barak). They both cultivated close relations with billionaires. They both trailed behind them a cloud of corruption wherever they went.
This did not hurt Sharon. He radiated leadership, and the scandals did not really harm him. He was robust enough to carry them on his back. Olmert, being much more fragile, was crushed by them.
In the end, he has fallen: not because of the criminal war, not because of his lack of seriousness in pursuing peace, not because of the appointment of a Minister of Justice whose aim is to destroy the judicial system, but because of cash in envelopes and free trips abroad.
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WHEN FUTURE historians look for a way to characterize this chapter in the annals of the state, one word will readily present itself, the one the writer David Grossman applied in a similar context: hollow.
It was a hollow era. A hole in time. A meaningless period, devoid of content (though not for those who paid the price with their lives, destruction and ruins.)
And that is also the suitable title for Olmert himself. A hollow politician, devoid of vision.
Anyone researching the headlines of these two years will find a lot of drama there. A lot of initiatives. A lot of slogans. A lot of spin. A lot of hot air. And the sum of all this: nothing.
A hollow leader of a hollow party pursuing hollow policies in a hollow political system.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.