Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Friday, May 16, 2014

"How the mighty have fallen." Ehud Olmert to Prison

This week former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced to six years in prison for taking bribes from property developers in the Holyland Development scandal when he was mayor of Jerusalem before becoming prime minister. He will be the first former prime minister in Israeli history to go to prison. Olmert served for ten years as Jerusalem's mayor, from 1993 to 2003, before becoming a minister in Ariel Sharon's second government. When Sharon broke away from the Likud in late 2005 to form Kadima Olmert went with him as his number two. Sharon then suffered a massive stroke two months later in early January 2006, which put him into a coma from which he never recovered, and Olmert became head of Kadima and then prime minister following elections in March 2006. Olmert only served as Kadima leader for 2.5 years until late 2008 when he was forced to give way to Tzipi Livni, his foreign minister, because he was under indictment for corruption. Tzipi Livni failed to form a new government and elections were called for early 2009. These resulted in Kadima winning one more seat than the Likud but going into opposition because of its inability to form a coalition government. Olmert then retired from politics.

Olmert began politics as an ambitious young political activist in the Herut Party. When Shmuel Tamir challenged Begin's leadership of the party and was suspended he split off to form the Free Center party in early 1967. Olmert went with him and at age 28 was elected to the Knesset on December 31, 1973 at age 28--the youngest ever MK. He began his career as an anti-corruption campaigner. But as mayor of Jerusalem, following the 28-year tenure of internationally-renowned Mayor Teddy Kollek of Rafi/Labor, he developed a reputation as one of the more corrupt figures in Israeli politics eating in fancy restaurants, smoking expensive cigars, and wearing tailor-made suits.

Ironically, Olmert had beaten an earlier corruption charge that was demonstrated to be politically motivated in order to prevent him from negotiating a peace deal with the Palestinians. But his former private secretary Shula Zaken revealed to prosecutors all the corruption deals in exchange for a plea bargain that resulted in a mere 11-month sentence for her, although she was a prime participant in the schemes. With time off for good behavior Olmert is likely to serve at most three or four years in a minimum-security prison. 

Besides going to prison, Olmert is likely to be remembered by future historians for three things. First, the Second Lebanon War occurred on his watch in July 2006 and resulted in a degradation of Israel's deterrent power and hundreds of thousands of homeless Lebanese who fled southern Lebanon and tens of thousands of Israelis who fled northern Israel. Second, in 2008 he engaged in direct peace talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that resulted in an Israeli offer to withdraw from 94 percent of the West Bank and swap territory for the remaining six percent. But because Abbas and Olmert were both very politically weak leaders, Olmert did not feel comfortable giving up a Palestinian right of return and according to some Israelis, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni advised Abbas to wait until she was prime minister before signing a peace deal. So the negotiations collapsed after eight months in the early fall of 2008. Third, in late December 2009 Olmert launched Operation Cast Lead--a war on Hamas and Gaza that resulted in over a thousand Palestinian deaths with literally two handfuls of Israelis killed. This was resulted in the Goldstone Report from UN appointed former South African Judge Richard Goldstone that was very critical of Israeli conduct during the war.

Abroad Olmert was feted and celebrated by liberal peace activists like J Street, where he was the guest of honor at J Street's third conference in 2012. But this will now end and reality will set in. Olmert should use his prison time to write his memoirs and explain what really happened to the peace deal in 2008, which no Bush administration official has yet adequately explained. J Street will now have to search for another credible Israeli peace partner for lame duck Palestinian President Abbas. Good luck with that.

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