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Analysis: Olmert’s journey from right-wing idealogue to unsuccessful pragmatist

Ehud Olmert's political career was marked by the shift from ideologue to pragmatist, as well as frequent allegations of personal corruption. Now at the end of his premiership, his signature projects remain unfinished

by Ron Kampeas

July 31, 2008 | 4:52 pm

WASHINGTON (JTA)—The day after Ehud Olmert buried his own political career, he announced plans to commemorate Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the ideological proponent of Greater Israel whose vision Olmert has done much to bury.

It was an odd closing of a circle: Olmert’s signature achievement may be how he guided his nation away from Jabotinsky’s vision of an Israel spanning the “river to the sea,” the Jordan to the Mediterranean.

His signature failure may be how the allegations of personal corruption that ended his career exemplified the Jewish state’s departure from the lean, ethical Zionism espoused by Jabotinsky.

Left unanswered is how Olmert’s departure affects the prospects for peace with Syria and the Palestinians, his signature projects, or his efforts to isolate Iran.

Olmert’s career at first typefied those of many other scions of the families who believed Jabotinsky’s grand vision one day would be vindicated, waiting patiently for the implosion of a Labor Party bloated with patronage.

In the 1950s Olmert’s father, Mordechai, had been a Knesset member for Herut, Likud’s predecessor, during the party’s lonely decades as a struggling opposition party. Ehud Olmert won election to the Knesset at the tender age of 28, in 1973, when the Likud won enough seats to form a viable opposition. Four years later it won the government outright.

Olmert during his first years in government was a strident advocate of Jewish settlement expansion. As a member of the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee from 1981, he helped push through budgeting for new settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and was an uncompromising spokesman for the government’s policy at the time of not countenancing any outreach to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The first sign of change came after the 1988 elections, when Olmert became a minister without portfolio in charge of minority affairs. In interviews immediately after the elections, he said his first priority would be to crush the nascent Islamist movement winning municipal elections across Israel’s Arab sector.

Within months, however, Olmert was delivering that rarest of political pronouncements: an apology. The Islamists, he said, were principally interested in bettering the lives of their constituents and he was ready to work with them.

It was around then that the other strand of Olmert’s career also emerged, as he found himself the subject of criminal allegations.

As Likud campaign manager in the 1988 elections, he was accused of authorizing the wiretapping of Labor Party headquarters. Though the accuser was the private detective who had carried out the wiretapping, Olmert managed to emerge unscathed.

Olmert began entertaining party leadership ambitions, sowing an intra-party enmity with Benjamin Netanyahu, another Likud scion. Olmert always seemed the less likely candidate: He lacked the smoothness of his rivals, and preferred the crude thrust in his political rhetoric, venturing into territory others would avoid.

In his successful run for Jerusalem mayor in 1993, Olmert mocked legendary mayor Teddy Kollek’s advanced years. Three years later he told reporters that between Netanyahu and Shimon Peres, Netanyahu was the “more Jewish” candidate for prime minister—a loaded reference to longstanding slanders that Peres’ mother was an Arab.

Yet Olmert when he wanted could be charming, especially when it came to the Americans. He formed fast friendships with American Jewish organizational leaders, members of Congress and others—particularly Rudolph Giuliani, another blunt-talking mayor.

For a political survivor, Olmert at times betrayed a surprisingly thin skin, calling newspapers and asking them to remove reporters he did not favor. When a local Jerusalem newspaper in 1994 uncovered his ties to a group that advocated in the 1970s for the aliyah of American Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky—an association Olmert did not need as he climbed the political ladder—Olmert strode over to the newspaper’s editor at a party and tossed a glass of water in her face.

His two terms as Jerusalem mayor were undistinguished. His most ambitious project, an expensive light-rail system, remains mired in the planning and construction stages five years after Olmert’s reign. Poverty in the city grew during Olmert’s 10-year tenure, infrastructure suffered and, unlike Kollek—who made a point of hearing out Arab complaints—Olmert essentially shut down the municipality’s Arab affairs department.

It was around the time that Olmert served as mayor that he cultivated many of the relationships with U.S. Jewish leaders that would culminate in this year’s multiple police investigations. Wealthy Jewish businessmen were attracted by Olmert’s pledges to preserve Jerusalem’s Jewish character. Allegedly that’s when the envelopes stuffed with cash—ostensibly for political campaigns—began changing hands.

Such behavior did little to dispel accusations by his rivals that he was using the mayor’s office to set up another run for prime minister. In 2003, Olmert rejoined the Knesset, again running the Likud’s successful campaign. His loyalty to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his political skills won him the post of deputy prime minister, even though he remained one of the party’s less popular figures.

Less popular in Israel, that is: Olmert remained well liked among American Jews, where he spearheaded the campaign to explain Sharon’s late-life conversion to land-for-peace policies. Olmert also formed a close friendship with President Bush.

If at first it seemed that Olmert, the veteran politician, was leaning where the political winds blew, his interlocutors soon realized his conversion on the peace process was genuine. His wife and children, all well-known doves, had had an effect on his thinking. More substantially, the shock of the violence of the second intifada in the early 2000s, which Olmert witnessed firsthand as Jerusalem mayor, convinced him that it was time to tease apart two states, Israel and Palestine.

“It was a genuine conversion,” said M.J. Rosenberg, the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, the dovish group that formed a close relationship with Olmert after his change of heart. “Olmert’s unique value was that he approached peace as a pragmatist—none of this starry-eyed Peres stuff. It was, ‘we Israelis want to have normal lives. We want to have nice houses and take our families to football games and make money. To do this we have to lay this conflict behind us.’ There was no mush.”

Palestinians, too, appreciated Olmert as a straight-shooting partner who treated them as equals. Olmert lacked the imperiousness of Ehud Barak or the paternalism of Peres.

It was Olmert’s practical vision that finally won him widespread popularity, and the premiership in January 2006, after Sharon went into a coma from a stroke. Olmert won general elections two months later.

Within months, however, the honeymoon unraveled.

Hezbollah launched an attack that July, and the Olmert government’s belligerent response seemed hapless. Israel’s air-based war did little to prevent substantial Israeli casualties and earned international opprobrium for the destruction it caused in Lebanon. Hezbollah also suffered heavy losses, but rallied as a political force in Lebanon and is now a veto-wielding presence in the country’s Cabinet.

Hezbollah also has rebuilt its forces and missile arsenal—to three times its prewar size, according to Israeli estimates.

At the same time, Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, sold hard by Olmert at the time, also was coming apart. Hamas terrorists had driven moderates from Gaza and were behind daily barrages of rockets into southern Israel.

The need to isolate Hezbollah, Hamas and especially their backer, Iran, drove Olmert to push harder for peace. It led to the re-launch last year of peace talks with Palestinians at Annapolis, Md., and to this year’s renewed talks with Syria under Turkish auspices.

In his resignation speech Wednesday, Olmert clearly hoped the peace talks would be his legacy.

“I continue to believe with all my heart that achieving peace, stopping terrorism, strengthening security and creating different relations with our neighbors are the most vital goals for the future of the State of Israel,” he said. “We are closer than ever to concrete understandings that are likely to the basis for agreements in the two strands of dialogue, the Palestinian and the Syrian. The moment we achieve peace we will stand baffled and wonder how we did not achieve this earlier.”

When it came to the corruption charges, he sounded defiant – a legacy perhaps pf his childhood weaning on the works of Jabotinsky, who famously counseled followers to “never surrender.”

“I have been forced to battle ceaseless attacks,” he said. “Everyone knows that things have been blown out of proportion.”

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