Between bloody wars and peace offers: The end of the road for Ehud Olmert

The former prime minister was sentenced to six years in prison. Olmert will appeal to the Supreme Court, but his return to power seems unlikely.

Ehud Olmert in the Tel Aviv District Court on the day of his sentencing. (photo:
Ehud Olmert in the Tel Aviv District Court on the day of his sentencing. (photo:

Prior to the last elections, Ehud Olmert was still mulling his return to politics. The long deliberation ended with nothing, as the circumstances didn’t seem right: his trials were still under way, his protégé Yair Lapid entered the race, and most importantly – the polls weren’t kind to him. Without a team of strong centrist candidates around him, Olmert didn’t stand a chance.

The public simply doesn’t like Olmert. He has a small group of centrist followers – those who believe he was a great prime minister who was wronged by the media and the public – the one who stabilized the southern and northern borders and conducted serious peace talks with the Palestinians. There is, however, a much larger camp, both on the political left and on the right, who saw in Olmert a symbol of recklessness and corruption, even prior to his conviction.

Olmert was indeed the prime minister who came closest to adopting a full two-state formula, in practice, rather than as lip service. In September 2008 he presented Mahmoud Abbas with the most far-reaching map drawn by an Israeli prime minister: 94 percent of the West Bank and Gaza were to be made into the Palestinian state, with nearly 1:1 land swaps on the remaining territory. But Olmert was already history due to his legal troubles. The Bush administration recommended Abbas not sign, as did Tzipi Livni, who was certain she was about to become the next prime minister. Olmert himself used Ehud Barak’s questionable strategy from the failed Camp David summit by trying to force Abbas with threats and promises into signing on the spot on his balcony in Jerusalem. Abbas wanted to take the maps back to his team, Olmert refused, and pretty soon all that remained was another story in the Israeli myth of “Palestinian rejectionism.”

In the years that passed since his departure from the Prime Minister’s Office, Olmert realized that the only way he can regain power is by positioning himself to the left of Benjamin Netanyahu. He didn’t stand a chance on the right, where he was blamed both for the peace talks with Abbas, as well as the disappointing way the 2006 Lebanon War turned out for Israel. A couple of days before the war ended, Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit warned Olmert in a front page op-ed that if he doesn’t send ground forces into Lebanon, he would lose the moral right to hold on to his office. Olmert ended up giving the order, but the IDF’s poor performance only made things worse for him. Netanyahu recognized Olmert’s weakness and his men supported the reservists’ protest against the government – which called for the resignation of the government and the establishment of a state commission to look into the failures experienced during the war – and which was already gaining momentum at the time.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President George W. Bush, and President Mahmoud Abbas at Annapolis, November 27, 2007 (Photo: Gin Kai)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President George W. Bush, and President Mahmoud Abbas at Annapolis, November 27, 2007 (Photo: Gin Kai)

Olmert’s real sin, the one he failed to pay any public price for, was Operation Cast Lead. A couple of years earlier, the Second Lebanon war made the Israeli government realize that military operations must end with heavy casualties on the other side – citizens or combatants, it didn’t really matter – and minimum casualties for the IDF. The result of this realization was a cruel strategy that preferred the use of artillery and aerial attacks on crowded neighborhoods rather than sending in ground forces for more precise operations. The other sided needed to have its blood spilled, and lots of it.

Cast Lead was a turning point in Israel-Palestinian relations, and many of the trends that shape the conflict were born out of that military campaign. The war led to the Goldstone Report, which had an enormous effect despite Israel’s best effort to discredit it. It mobilized a new generation of pro-Palestinian activists around the world, strengthened the boycott movement and led to international resistance efforts like the 2010 flotilla to Gaza.

On a deeper level, the years between Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and Cast Lead (2008-2009) killed much of the momentum for the two-state solution. Both the Israeli public and the Palestinians wonder what could possibly prevent the cycle of blockade, rockets and Israeli attacks in the unlikely case that Israel evacuates the West Bank. In that sense, there is something symbolic about the fact that Olmert is being sent to prison at the same time that the diplomatic process is on its death bed.

The wars Olmert led in Lebanon and Gaza brought on a wave of militaristic trends in Israel, leading to the emergence of groups like Im Tirzu (which was born out of the reservists’ protest) and to anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset. Members of Olmert’s own Kadima party often supported and even led those developments, so one could argue that Olmert himself helped unleash the forces that today celebrate his downfall.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (TzipiLivni/CC BY NC SA 2.0)
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (TzipiLivni/CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Israeli prime ministers can historically be divided into activists and those who avoid taking action. David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon are known activists. They tried to shape regional dynamics through diplomacy and the implementation of military force. Those were the leaders who initiated wars, but also demonstrated some pragmatism. Sharon was undoubtedly the most extreme of them all. No one believed in unilateralism or plotted the conquering of Arab states and installing puppet-regimes the way he did. The activist thinking is also common to the Israeli security establishment – this is the reason its major figures move so elegantly from the arms business to the peace business. For them, these are but two sides of the same coin.

On the other pole are conservative prime ministers, who tend to react with caution to regional developments, maintain the status quo and initiate action only when forced to. Yitzhak Shamir was such a conservative, and Netanyahu is even more so. Bibi is the longest-serving Israeli prime minister after David Ben-Gurion, yet he has never started any full-scale wars, and ended the only military operation he did launch rather quickly. Netanyahu also avoids meaningful diplomacy – these features go together as well.

Olmert was the last activist prime minister Israel has seen. His downfall brought conservatives to power, who then surrounded themselves with other conservatives. Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Moshe Ya’alon, even IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz – they all initiated very little on the geo-political level, and what they lack in action they make up in propaganda (except for Gantz, who is not a politician yet). Their politics is about denial of the mess Israeli has gotten itself into in the occupied territories, and their rhetoric is extremely destructive for the relations between Jews and Arabs. The bottom line is that they simply don’t do much to change the status quo, and their success is but further evidence that the Israeli public is satisfied with maintaining the status quo.

The tough sentence Olmert received – six years in prison – means his political career is over. The local cliche is that anything is possible in politics, and the common example people give to that is the way Ariel Sharon returned from the political desert to become a national hero. But Sharon became prime minister under the most unusual circumstances, and largely thanks to mistakes made by his political rivals (most of all Netanyahu, who chose not to run). Under more ordinary circumstances, one can be fairly confident that there will be no comeback for him. The heavy sentence, the (unfair and unjustified) use of the term “treason” by his judge, his popularity problem even before the sentence – it’s simply too much. I don’t think Olmert stood a chance of becoming prime minister again even before his conviction. There was something desperate about his conduct – in his negotiations with the Palestinians, which gained momentum as his legal troubles were mounting, and in the style of his public appearances since he resigned. This also didn’t add to his credit.

Olmert was born in 1945, and the end of his political career is also the end of the road for his generation in the Israeli center-left (there are some more of them in the right, most notably Netanyahu). The new candidates in the center – Lapid, Livni, Yitzhak Hertzog, Moshe Kahlon, Yuval Diskin – were all born in the late fifties or early sixties. The post-1967 reality is the only one they know. The chances that they will try to radically transform it, in the absence of outside pressure or another intifada, are just as low.

Read this post in Hebrew on Local Call.

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