Ehud Olmert has handed in a brisk two-line resignation as prime minister of Israel, and Shimon Peres, the veteran president, has accepted it. Brief and respectful as they are, the formalities have been completed with an almost audible sigh of relief in the country. During his 33 months in office, Olmert has not been a success. He hitched himself on to Ariel Sharon, and like him suddenly transformed himself without warning from hawk into dove. When Sharon suffered a stroke, his deputy Olmert replaced him, prime minister by accident rather than popular choice.
In 2006 he had to respond to aggression from Hezbollah, the Islamist movement implanted in Lebanon by Iran. Very much a civilian without military experience, everything he then did was misjudged, with the result that Hezbollah was able at the end of the campaign to claim victory. Afterwards Olmert appeared to concentrate solely on wishing the responsibility for his failure on to other ministers and senior officers. Similarly, the opening of peace negotiations at the same time with the Palestinians and Syria seemed forlorn efforts to make himself indispensable, visibly lacking genuine conviction. Though successful, the raid on Syria that supposedly destroyed a nuclear facility added confusion to Olmert’s real intentions. No previous Israeli politician ever had such unfavorable polls.
And then there are the multiple corruption charges. In particular, he is accused of receiving envelopes of cash from an American well-wisher, and double-charging on expense accounts. He claims to be resigning in order to clear himself. Israel has a tradition of public service and idealism, The huge majority of Israelis are shocked by what is alleged so far about Olmert’s profiteering from office, and Haaretz, the leading Israeli newspaper, spoke for them: “His personal conduct, which reflected his hedonism and greed, shadowed his performance as prime minister.” The editorial went further, concluding about Olmert’s period in office, “The balance sheet comes close to zero.” Even more extreme, the blogosphere throws up condemnation such as “This disgraceful man.”
Whether or not he is finally prosecuted, Olmert has made things difficult for his successor, his party, and the peace process. Israel does not need that sort of turmoil at a critical moment like the present.