The Slow Demise of Ehud Olmert


Ehud Olmert, who handed over the Israeli premiership to Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday after three years heading the government, suffered a slow and public political demise.

The eight lame-duck months since his resignation have been spent energetically refashioning his image as a successful leader – the “Olmert myth”, as one commentator recently called it.

Humiliated in a war in Lebanon and buffeted by corruption scandals at home, Mr Olmert is reported to believe he will one day make a political comeback like Mr Netanyahu, who led the government in the late 1990s.

Certainly, Mr Olmert was once known as the great survivor. Of the three figures who pushed the country into the disastrous Lebanon war in the summer of 2006, only he walked out of the wreckage still standing. But this time even his talents may be overwhelmed by the task of salvaging his reputation.

Mr Olmert’s rapid rise in Israeli national politics — after a decade spent making his name as the hardline mayor of Jerusalem — took rivals in the Likud Party by surprise. Joining the Knesset in 2003, he quickly gained the ear of Ariel Sharon, who was then prime minister.

Once a vocal opponent of concessions to the Palestinians, Mr Olmert underwent a political transformation that closely mirrored Mr Sharon’s. Some analysts suggest that, in fact, it was Mr Olmert who guided and shaped the prime minister’s thinking, reflected in his designation as Mr Sharon’s heir in the new centrist party Kadima they would later establish.

In an interview in Nov 2003, Mr Olmert set out the calculations behind the pair’s apparent conversion to a two-state solution. He warned that the rapidly growing Palestinian populations in both Israel and the occupied territories would soon overtake the number of Jews in the region and make Israeli rule look like apartheid.

Palestinians, he predicted, would realise that they could destroy Israel not through armed resistance but by waging a “powerful struggle” for “one-man, one-vote”.

This assessment provided the rationale for Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza in Aug 2005, which required a small territorial sacrifice in return for Israel’s being able to claim it had divested itself of responsibility for nearly one-third of the Palestinians under its rule. Importantly, the move postponed the apartheid analogy.

When Mr Sharon was felled by a stroke at the start of 2006, Mr Olmert inherited both his job and his ideological mantel, leading Kadima to a comfortable election victory.

The high watermark of his premiership came a short time later, when he was invited to address the US Congress, unveiling to the American public a policy he called “convergence”, which he believed would seal his stature as a peacemaker.

Under convergence, Israel would withdraw from those areas of the West Bank not enclosed by Israel’s steel and concrete security barrier. The spaces left behind would become the basis for a Palestinian state.

Mr Olmert never had a practical chance to pursue his vision of a circumscribed Palestinian statehood. He was hit by three crises that derailed first his convergence policy and then his premiership.

The first was the rise to power of Hamas in Palestinian elections that coincided with Mr Olmert’s own electoral victory. Despite sanctions, Hamas rapidly cemented its rule in Gaza and set the tenor of its relations with the Olmert government by capturing a soldier, Gilad Shalit, near to the Gaza border.

The second crisis was the Lebanon war, launched after the Sahia militia Hizbollah captured two more soldiers, this time from the northern border. Israel unleashed a wave of attacks against its adversary for more than a month – to little effect apart from devastating Lebanon.

The subsequent report of the Winograd investigating committee, even though it was appointed by Mr Olmert, could not whitewash the government and army’s failure to achieve any of the goals they had set for the operation.

Both crises made convergence look reckless. In the emerging Israeli consensus, withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 had unleashed a Hamas government and withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 had created a Hizbollah mini-state. Why make the same mistake in the West Bank?

Stripped of his key policy, Mr Omert floundered as he searched for a new direction. His popularity ratings sank to record lows. At this vulnerable moment, he was engulfed by a series of corruption scandals, most of them for alleged offences predating his premiership.

His predecessor, Mr Sharon, had been able to dodge similar investigations by adopting the disengagement policy, which disarmed his critics and transformed him into a peacemaker feted by the international community. Mr Olmert, however, had lost his own protection with the discarding of “convergence”. The police closed in with greater confidence.

As allegations mounted, he was forced to announce his resignation in June, becoming caretaker prime minister as his party held a primary to choose a new leader, Tzipi Livni. When she failed to cobble together a coalition, new elections were held.

Mr Olmert saw out his term making menacing noises to Iran, pursuing an agreement with Syria that he undid with his backing for an attack on Gaza in January, participating in terminally fruitless negotiations with the equally lame-duck Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and failing to negotiate Sgt Shalit’s release.

Two minor triumphs were attributed to Mr Olmert: attacks on what Israel described as a Syrian nuclear reactor, and what was claimed to have been an Iranian weapons convoy travelling through Sudan on its way to Gaza.

But the circumstances of both remained so mysterious that he was unable to reap much personal credit.

JONATHAN COOK is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.

A version of this article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi.

More articles by:

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is http://www.jonathan-cook.net/

March 21, 2018
Paul Street
Time is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy from the American Oligarchy?
Mel Goodman
The Great Myth of the So-Called “Adults in the Room”
Chris Floyd
Stumbling Blocks: Tim Kaine and the Bipartisan Abettors of Atrocity
Eric Draitser
The Political Repression of the Radical Left in Crimea
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Threatens Wider War Against the Kurds
John Steppling
It is Us
Thomas Knapp
Death Penalty for Drug Dealers? Be Careful What You Wish for, President Trump
Manuel García, Jr.
Why I Am Leftist (Vietnam War)
Isaac Christiansen
A Left Critique of Russiagate
Howard Gregory
The Unemployment Rate is an Inadequate Reporter of U.S. Economic Health
Ramzy Baroud
Who Wants to Kill Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah?
Roy Morrison
Trouble Ahead: The Trump Administration at Home and Abroad
Roger Hayden
Too Many Dead Grizzlies
George Wuerthner
The Lessons of the Battle to Save the Ancient Forests of French Pete
Binoy Kampmark
Fictional Free Trade and Permanent Protectionism: Donald Trump’s Economic Orthodoxy
Rivera Sun
Think Outside the Protest Box
March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
John Pilger
Skripal Case: a Carefully-Constructed Drama?
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us
Nomi Prins 
Jared Kushner, RIP: a Political Obituary for the President’s Son-in-Law
Georgina Downs
The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning
Dean Baker
Trump and the Federal Reserve
Colin Todhunter
The Strategy of Tension Towards Russia and the Push to Nuclear War
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
US Empire on Decline
Ralph Nader
Ahoy America, Give Trump a Taste of His Own Medicine Starting on Trump Imitation Day
Robert Dodge
Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by Divesting from Them
Laura Finley
Shame on You, Katy Perry
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography