Friday, August 1, 2008

My Breakfast At Ehud's

Ehud Olmert's career has come to a sad end. He has announced that, in light of the continuing allegations against him, he'll step aside in September. This is a good thing for both the country and the peace process. He likely broke the law; he allowed rich foreign Jews to overindulge him too much. I have argued here before that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is the Israeli center's best hope for keeping Benjamin Netanyahu's grotesque coalition from power. A recent poll would seem to reinforce the point.

But people who've known Olmert over the years understand what a tragic result this is for a man of high intelligence, natural warmth, and genuine worldliness--in a way, the first Israeli prime minister who was cosmopolitan enough to see his country as others do. He was also a pro.

"I have to say I could never bring myself to dislike the guy," Ambassador Alvaro de Soto, the former UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, and (since his resignation) a harsh critic of many aspects of Olmert's performance, wrote me earlier today: "He may have been a dismal commander-in-chief, but he articulated the depth of the challenge facing Israel with astonishing candor. When it becomes clear to all that Israel is becoming, in Tom Friedman's words, 'permanently pregnant with a stillborn Palestinian state in its belly,' people might recall that he told them so."

OLMERT'S GREATEST FAILURE was his inability to stand up to generals in the cabinet room after soldiers were kidnapped on the northern border in the summer of 2006; generals with contingency plans, maps and reassurances. Political professional that he was, he was loathe to be thought outside the consensus established by military professionals--also by outdated Zionist institutions, American Jewish moguls, and a tabloid press. He told some journalists after the Lebanon war that this was his Bay of Pigs, implying that he had been ensnared by an inherited security establishment. He said he would need three years for people to forget the debacle and credit his peace moves. Alas, he is no Jack Kennedy.

Anyway, I interviewed Olmert for my book in February of 2007. He and his wife Aliza had prepared a lovely breakfast at his residence, and he talked, on the record, for about 45 minutes as he prepared to go off to a reunion of his first-grade class from Binyamina. He was already being investigated, and the Winograd Commission was still deliberating (hence, the little joke about the sudden importance of Prof. Ruth Gavison). But he was still projecting hope for a diplomatic process with the Palestinians. I thought the conversation was unusually interesting, and could get little of it into my book.

It is, in any case, most revealing to hear him unfiltered. Among other things, it may help us understand what he'll be leaving his successor. The entire conversation can be heard here.


Y. Ben-David said...

Dr Avishai, I am really surprised as how someone who is as knowledgeable about the ruling groups in Israel can be so naive. Olmert cornered you at a New Year's party and told about his sincere desire to get Israeli out of Judea/Samaria and his dreams for peace with the Palestinians. But did you forget that 20 years earlier, he told "right-wingers" like his friend Talansky the exact opposite...about his love for the Jewish communities in Judea/Samaria, his fervent desire to keep Jerusalem united under Israeli rule and how the Palestinians can't be trusted?


If he can betray all the Right-wingers who once trusted him, he can then betray all his new "progressive" Left-wing friends as well.
Olmert is a life-long politician. He entered the Knesset at age 29. Ironically, he first decided to create an image as a "corruption figher". He would go around and accuse various public personalities of being involved in organized crime. I don't believe any of them ever were convicted of anything. He then himself becomes the King of Corruption.
It is important to remember that he was born into "the Fighting Family" of the ETZEL. Thus, he knew from the beginning that he had no chance to join the Labor Party (where family connections were very impotant in getting ahead). Thus, in order to enter politics he had to mouth "right-wing" Likud slogans. Today, I doubt he ever believed in any of them. He is a political nihilist who will say anything to get ahead. Recall that he buttonholed you at the New Year's party at the time he was being pilloried by the results of the Winograd Commission. He told you all those wonderful things, hoping you would then tell all your friends, many of whom I imagine are in influential positions in Israeli society so they would say "true he is incompetant and corrupt, but we should keep him in power because he is promising to do what we want". It worked at the time. You still seem to believe him. How many "illegal outposts" did he knock down for you?

Same with your fear of Netanyahu. Why do you think he is any different that Livni, Mofaz, Olmert and the rest? He is part of the same secular Hebrew Republic elite that you and your friends belong to. He supported destroying Gush Katif, he drastically cut the children's allowance that were important to the Haredim. He just recruited Leftist Uzi Dayan to the Likud and is working to get other "progressives" like Dan Meridor and Meir Shitreet to return to the Likud. The Likud's policy regarding the Palestinians is identical, as far as I can see, to Kadima's. Yes, he says he opposes dividing Jerusalem, but then Kadima said that before the last election, too. He is the ONE man who can destroy settlements. No government ever led by the Left has ever knocked down a single settlment, only governments led by the Likud. If I were you I would support Netanyahu and the Likud precisely for this reason. I just can't understand how you don't see this. You really seem to take statements made by mealy-mouthed politicians seriously.

Bernard Avishai said...

For Y. Ben-David:

It goes without saying, though I've said it often, that Olmert is a keen politician and has been trying to seduce me (and anyone else in sight) over the 35 years years I've known him. He was also a good Likudnik, and settlement hawk, when it was in his interest to be one.

But this is precisely what makes him so interesting: his calculation that globalization is pushing self-interested Israelis in a direction different from the old settlement culture.

As for Netanyahu, I don't really think he is unlike Olmert (and said so in my book). But I also said, and believe, that his leverage is, and will remain, in his ability to organize a bloc of rightist and Orthodox parties who will never be tractable.

This idea that we need Likudniks to carry out peace moves because Likudniks were the ones who put 40 years of obstacles to peace in our path is a little like saying, well, we need rightists to do everything, simply because they are the only ones who will not be considered--how does Y. Ben-David put it?--naive.

Actually, our only hope is not Likud, nor Labor, but a growing understanding of the pressures (positive and negative) mounting from America and Europe. This understanding, for all of his caution, has been Olmert's real contribution.

By the way, can we not banish the word "naive" from these comments, or is that like asking Israelis on "Politika" not to interrupt?

Y. Ben-David said...

I do not believe that Netanyahu can form a Right-wing bloc even if the Likud comes in first in the next elections. The strongly-ideological Right-wingers do not trust him for the reaons I have stated...this threat is serious enough for a big Bibi-booster like Amnon Lord in last Friday's Makor Rishon newspaper to blast the ideological-Right for opposing him, particularly for his recruitment of Uzi Dayan to the Likud. Thus, many Right-wingers will simply stay home on election day. Similarly, the Haredi parties are fed up with him as well. It was the Likud gov't with him as Finance Minister that made deep cuts in the child allowance which benefits the Haredi sector to a significant degree. It was this same gov't that dismantled the Religious Affairs Ministry. It was Olmert's Center-Left coalition that brought it back to life (!) and also agreed to continue funding Haredi education without demanding that they implement teaching the core curriculum of secular subjects. Thus, in irony of ironies, it is the Leftist parties, who traditionally have been very critical of the Haredim that are giving them much more than the Likud which was their traditional ally. Thus, I don't believe that the Haredim would join a Right-wing block that would recommend to the President putting formation of coalition on the Bibi-led Likud. Thus, I predict no matter how the next elections come out, the next gov't will be more or less the same Center-Left coalition that you have now (with or without the Likud who also supports the same policies as Kadima, as I have pointed out). I don't believe any party will have more than 25 seats and so whoever the Prime Minister is, he or she will be hamstrung by the same weakness of not having a large, disciplined party behind them and the same backbiting and indecision that we see today will continue, no matter what.

Bernard Avishai said...

How about this, Y. Ben-David: I actually bet Olmert 100 shekels that Obama would win the nomination. I'll bet you a hundred shekels that if Netanyahu wins an election, the rightist parties, from Shas to the NRP, and the Haredi parties as well, will join the coalition before Labor does. Deal?

Y. Ben-David said...

Here is a link to an article in the New York Times about the disintegration of Belgium which will show why the "Hebrew Republic", based on secularism, globalization and economics as the glue that will supposedly hold otherwise hostile ethnic groups or nationalities together:

Y. Ben-David said...

Sorry, I meant to add that "the article will show why the 'Hebrew Republic' can never serve as a basis for ending the Arab/Israeli conflict".

Y. Ben-David said...

Dr Avishai thinks having Netanyahu in power is "grotesque". Here is a column by one of Dr Avishai's fellow "progressives" which points out that Netanyahu is no different than all his major competitors and this demonization of him by the Left makes no sense...

fiddler said...

Quoth Alvaro de Soto, "When it becomes clear to all that Israel is becoming, in Tom Friedman's words, 'permanently pregnant with a stillborn Palestinian state in its belly,' people might recall that he told them so."

So why then has Olmert now officially added his name to the long list of impregnators by touting the same old Allon plan, give or take a few dunams? Did he think for a second that even Abu Mazen would fall for it? Or was he merely working on his "legacy", so, like Barak before him, he can retreat into his corner in September, pouting? "I offered them all and they refused."

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