Politics & Policy

Olmert’s End

The resignation of Ehud Olmert will gladden most Israelis. In spite of his mounting unpopularity and distrust in the view of the electorate, he had been clinging limpet-like to office, using all the black arts of politics in the process. In the first place, he was only an accidental prime minister, promoted to the top solely because his predecessor Ariel Sharon suffered an incapacitating stroke. Olmert had always been a man of the Right. In a sudden swerve, he presented himself if not a man of the Left at least its fellow-traveller, thereby alienating his former power base. The transformation appeared to be simply a career move, having nothing to do with ideas or convictions.

The 2006 war with Hezbollah exposed his limitations dramatically and dangerously. He announced immediate war aims but handled things in so incompetent a way that these could not be realized, allowing Hezbollah to claim victory. The Arab and Muslim world was encouraged to believe that Israel could be destroyed after all. The Israeli chief of staff resigned, some commanders were relieved of their posts, but Olmert refused to accept his responsibility for the fiasco. From then on, he sank to record lows in the polls and a majority of Israelis began to speculate on how to be rid of him.

Rumors of Olmert’s shady dealings on behalf of himself or his party initiated multiple police investigations that remain on-going. At which point, Olmert took the position that he would negotiate peace with the Palestinians, he would remove Israeli settlements from the West Bank and might divide Jerusalem, and via Turkey as an intermediary he would conduct other negotiations with Syria. None of this was realistic and there is no doubt that he knew it. To put it plainly, issues of national importance were being exploited as a distraction from police inquiries and as a pretext to stay in office. The political craft may have been transparent, but it permitted Olmert to carry on as before.

In court, an American well-wisher finally stated that he had paid travel expenses and luxury hotel bills and much else for Olmert, amounting to a six-figure sum. Whatever the truth of this proves to be, Israel is still a country with a belief in Zionist principles of self-denial and dedication to the common good. Ever since that testimony in court, Olmert’s resignation and the turmoil and general election likely to follow, have been thought to be only a matter of time. Public opinion in the end proved determined enough to prise off the limpet.

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