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The Israeli-American Prime Minister Bids Farewell

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has never been known to take the high road. Even when he was starting out, as a young Likud MK, he was known to be fierce, ambitious, and not above a good fight. He won … Read More

By / July 30, 2008

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has never been known to take the high road. Even when he was starting out, as a young Likud MK, he was known to be fierce, ambitious, and not above a good fight. He won election as Jerusalem's mayor by tarring the beloved Teddy Pollack as too old and out of touch (memo to Barack Obama?). And he became Israel's first accidental prime minister, ascending to power due to a quirk of personal politics and, of course, Ariel Sharon's sudden demise. But today, he chose the more respectable of the two paths available to him. In the wake of corruption scandals, he had two basic choices: resign only if indicted, or choose not to run in Kadima's September 17 primary. Olmert, a lifelong fighter, might well have chosen the former, but today he took the latter, ending his political career. Probably, it was a matter of cold calculation. What were the odds he would prevail on September 17, anyway? Even if he did prevail in the primary, would he win a general election as one of Israel's most disliked prime ministers, under a cloud of controversy? Risky bets at best — and bruising battles. Probably Olmert reviewed the odds, and chose a graceful exit. Who knows — if Kadima withers after this election, Olmert might make a comeback someday. Ehud Barak was widely despised also, and now — thanks to his own deft maneuvering — he could be prime minister again himself. And only Olmert knows the whole truth about the scandals. Maybe by stepping down in this way, he can cut himself a deal — or at least avoid being indicted while in office. In many ways, Olmert is/was Israel's first "American" Prime Minister. Not just because he allegedly took bribes from a smarmy American Jewish political operative, but because he worked his way up through the system by wheeling and dealing, finding pressure points and exploiting them. Olmert was (Bill) Clintonesque in his moves to the Israeli center, (W.) Bushesque in his ability to say one thing and do another, and, perhaps most importantly, the first Israeli prime minister clearly beholden to big money. As mayor, Olmert never met a development plan he didn't like, and Jerusalem bears the scars of his administration to this day. As prime minister, Olmert may or may not have been corrupt, but the wealth gap in Israel has grown during his time in office, Israeli politics now seem as cynical as American politics, and there is no Israeli Barack Obama on the political horizon. All of this reflects Israel as a whole. Israel is more American now than at any time in its history, for better and for worse. For worse, Israel is a land of strip malls and superhighways. For better, it is competing favorably in an international economy, and has attracted significant investment. If America ever kicks its oil addiction, Israel is primed to become the sole economic superpower of the Middle East. So, in a way, Olmert was exactly the prime minister Israel deserved at this point in its history: lacking the heroic stature of his predecessors, a bit mediocre, but at home in the marketplace and the cultural world of the American empire. And like Israel, Olmert was dealt a tough hand. He was stuck with an unwinnable peace process, lousy coalition partners, and a series of no-win situations (like the recent exchange of live Palestinian terrorist prisoners for dead Israeli soldiers). His military judgment was tested early, and he failed. And of course, he was an apparatchik in the wake of a juggernaut. For some reason, I always liked the guy. I don't know if he took those cash envelopes, or what was promised in exchange, but I'm sure many politicians have done that before. I don't think of myself as naive, but somehow I always felt as though Olmert was trying to make the best decisions he could, for the good of Israel. Befitting his less than heroic stature, his fall from grace seems less like the result of a tragic flaw than of a few tough breaks. He just didn't have the moves this time.

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