Ehud Olmert's Second Act

How the disgraced former prime minister evolved from zealous hawk to potential savior of Israel's center-left.

RTXDDA7-615.jpgRonen Zvulun/Reuters

This week Ehud Olmert, Israel's embattled ex-prime minister and one-time "prince" of the rightist Likud party, came out strongly in favor of the Palestinian Authority's bid to upgrade its status at the U.N. General Assembly.

"Once the United Nations will lay the foundation for this idea, we in Israel will have to engage in a serious process of negotiations, in order to agree on specific borders based on the 1967 lines, and resolve the other issues," Olmert said, according to a report in The Daily Beast's Open Zion blog. "It is time to give a hand to, and encourage, the moderate forces amongst the Palestinians."

Olmert's cri de coeur highlights a profound shift for this former hawk who, since earning his stripes as a champion of Israel's settler movement and a staunch defender of an undivided Jerusalem as Israel's capital, has taken a dramatic turn to the left. In fact, he has of late become one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's most vocal critics, hammering his predecessor for talking "too much" and "too loud" when it comes to Iran while doing altogether too little on the Palestinian front. Unfettered by the restraints of governing, Olmert has unleashed his inner peacenik.

Perhaps equally as surprising as his ideological evolution is his possible political resurgence. Olmert left office in 2009 in disgrace, widely criticized for his mismanagement of the Lebanon invasion and burdened by a slew of corruption charges. After years watching him do battle in court, many Israelis had left him for dead.

But as the center and left in Israel came to realize that none of their current candidates was likely to unseat the hardline Netanyahu in Israel's upcoming elections, attention has unexpectedly begun turning back to Olmert as one of the few political figures with the gravitas to compete. Olmert has been flirting with running for weeks. On Wednesday, he endorsed his former party, the center-right Kadima, and agreed to serve on the committee that will select its candidates for the January 2013 elections. Some see that decision as a definitive pass on running himself , while others say he is keeping the door open. The rampant speculation has served to elevate his profile even higher. His recent comments indicate that if he does, he may represent Israel's best hope for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. After an equivocal legal triumph, he may now be poised to make a political comeback.

Like Netanyahu, Olmert was a stalwart of the Israeli right--a Likudnik of the Menachem Begin-Yitzhak Shamir strain. Prior to the state's founding, his parents had been affiliated with Begin's right-wing militia, Irgun, and later his father, Mordechai, was elected to Knesset as a member of Herut, the Likud's progenitor. For a man of such pure-bred rightist pedigree, his recent moves have been remarkable.

Those who have followed Olmert's career offer up a variety of explanations for his leftward drift. In the winter of 1988, with the first intifada raging, author Bernard Avishai was visiting Israel with Philip Roth and stopped by the Knesset to introduce the famous American writer to Olmert, then a Likud back-bencher whom Avishai had known since 1974. As they sat down to lunch in the parliament's cafeteria, Olmert suggested that a mass migration of American Jews to the West Bank would render moot the claims of rebellious Palestinians.

"Philip looked at him and said 'Are you crazy? American Jews aren't coming,'" recalls Avishai, author of The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace at Last. "And Olmert said, 'Why would they not come?' and Philip said 'Because they have lives of their own.'"

The conversation ended quickly but Olmert told Avishai that it made a lasting impression. "I talked to [Olmert] recently and he said he remembers the conversation very, very well," Avishai says. "What really changed him was the growing realization that American liberalism for Jews was something really important and authentic and they had no intention of coming to Israel."

"[Olmert] also saw what happened in South Africa in the 1990s," Avishai adds. "It's not that the Israeli and South African situations were alike, but he felt that this path toward failed annexation would nevertheless isolate Israel diplomatically and internationally and that Jews in America would be among those leading the charge."

Others place the origins of Olmert's conversion in the mid-to-late 1990s, when Israel was rocked by a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings. Over just two months in 1996, for example, suicide attacks killed 45 Israelis in Jerusalem alone. The following year more than 20 died in attacks on the city. Then Jerusalem's mayor, Olmert was often among the first to arrive on the scene, and saw the grisly results firsthand--putting the limits of ideology into stark relief.

Around the same time, observers say, Olmert began to internalize what is often called Israel's "demographic problem." With their rapidly growing birthrate, the idea goes, Palestinians under Israeli jurisdiction could soon outnumber Jews. If Israel does not see to it that the Palestinians control a viable state of their own, the country risks losing either its Jewish or its democratic character--which is to say, risks abandoning its reason d'etre. That, says Roni Milo, a former Likud minister who has served in government with Olmert, "would be a disaster for Israel." Milo says this recognition lies behind is own move to the center, and that of another prominent Likudnik, Dan Meridor.

Presented by

Chanan Tigay, a professor at San Francisco State University, has covered the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for Agence France-Presse and is the author of the forthcoming book, Unholy Scriptures: Fraud, Suicide, Scandal, and the Bible that Rocked the Holy City.

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