Olmert’s Conversion From Pol to Leader

As far as personality goes, Ehud Olmert is not my kind of guy. He comes off like he thinks he’s God’s gift to humanity, riffraff that we are.

I remember several years ago when as mayor of Jerusalem, he came to view the damage to a local Conservative synagogue that had been firebombed. He didn’t walk through the blackened sanctuary, he sauntered through in a stately way, his head in the air. Wearing a very expensive-looking suit and shoes, he was the picture of an aristocrat, of someone who’s always known he’s entitled to power and all its perks. He didn’t light up one of his big cigars, but he might as well have.

This was before the intifada. In those days, and even earlier, I couldn’t bear Olmert. In both personality and politics, he was offensive. He seemed the ultimate sleaze, a cynical pol thoroughly mobbed up with every conniving businessman who had a hand in Israeli politics.

As mayor, he sold himself to the capital’s haredim. Worse, he was the government patron of the radical settler movement in Arab East Jerusalem. Worst of all, he was the prime mover behind the Netanyahu government’s crazed decision to open the Western Wall Tunnel in 1996, which ended with 16 Israeli soldiers and about 80 Palestinians dead.

This is a lot to put aside when judging Olmert today as the interim prime minister and as the man very likely to be confirmed for the post in the March 28 election. But, finally, political leaders shouldn’t be judged on personality, because they’re all full of themselves to a greater or lesser degree. And, unfortunately, Olmert’s attraction to money and the moneyed makes him fairly par for the course among his peers; he’s probably no worse than Ariel Sharon was on that score.

You have to judge politicians, especially those running for prime minister, without sentiment. And if they’ve changed direction, you have to give more weight to what they’ve done lately than what they did before. Unless the candidate is a truly malevolent character, you have to judge him or her on two things: leadership ability and political direction. And on that basis, I think Olmert is better suited to be prime minister than anybody else around.

My opinion of him began to change during the intifada. As Jerusalem mayor, he did a solid job of bucking up a public that was reeling from the suicide bombs. He didn’t talk empty slogans; he didn’t use bombast. Instead, he showed empathy for people and urged them not to heroism or patriotic fervor but to a kind of head-down, workaday, human-scale resilience. I don’t know if it’s better to say he rose to the occasion or bent to it, but this “prince” proved himself an inspirational leader of ordinary people during a long, agonizing ordeal.

Maybe more than anything else, that trial by fire prepared Olmert for the emergency role he just assumed.

The other reason he’s the best suited to be prime minister is his political turnaround, which has been more emphatic and far-reaching even than Sharon’s. As Sharon’s vice premier and closest political ally, it was Olmert who gave the first signal of the disengagement plan to come in his ground-shaking interview with Yediot Aharonot’s Nahum Barnea in December 2003.

Without laying out a map, Olmert made it unmistakably clear that he wanted unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank interior and even from the outlying Arab neighborhoods and villages of Jerusalem. This, from the fellow who came up with Binyamin Netanyahu’s 1996 campaign slogan, “Peres will divide Jerusalem.”

The reasons Olmert gave weren’t moral, they were pragmatic. He argued that if Israel didn’t unilaterally narrow its borders, the world, including the United States, would force it back to even narrower ones. He also warned that if Israel didn’t separate itself from millions of Palestinians, it would stop being a Jewish state and become a binational one.

“We didn’t fight here for 100 years, we didn’t spill our blood to lose the Jewish state,” he said.

Very soon afterward, Sharon unveiled the disengagement plan. It was not easy overcoming the resistance within the Likud, let alone that of the settlers, and the most important soldier in the fight, after Sharon himself, was Olmert.

Cliche or not, he really did show vision and courage. He, too, is a transformed politician. Last week he didn’t hesitate in saying East Jerusalem Arabs would be free to vote in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. The old Olmert would have called such a decision national suicide.

Also to his credit: His worst political enemy is Netanyahu. They can’t stand each other. Enough said.

But one final point: Since 2004, I’ve been writing that Amir Peretz, because of the strength of his leadership in the cause of economic decency — something this country needs desperately — should become prime minister. I changed my mind during the current campaign and before Sharon had his stroke.

To be Israel’s prime minister, it’s not enough to show the way to raise up the poor — you’ve also got to show the way to fight Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc., and to end the occupation. Peretz has shown only that he doesn’t have a clear way in mind. He gives hardly a clue about how he’d handle the Kassams coming out of Gaza.

As for ending the occupation, Peretz promises to sit down with Mahmoud Abbas and reach a final agreement in a year. Hasn’t he noticed that Abbas isn’t exactly running the show over there?

Peretz acts as if running the State of Israel will be a piece of cake, as if that’s supposed to inspire confidence in him. And when he declares “Oslo is alive and well,” it sounds like the intifada made no impression on him; that the last five years hasn’t affected his thinking at all.

I’d probably feel enthusiastic about Peretz becoming prime minister if we were living in a country whose overriding problem was poverty, one that was not surrounded by enemies — say, Brazil. But we are not Brazil.

Still, if Kadima goes into Election Day with an insurmountable lead over Labor and Likud and is guaranteed to end up running the government, then I’ll vote for Labor. I want there to be a strong voice for economic change, and on that issue, Peretz is by far the best.

But if it’s a close race, and it’s not certain which party is going to form the government, then I’m going to vote for the one that has the best candidate for prime minister. That party is Kadima.

Times have changed dramatically and for the better, and Olmert was out in front when they did. I believe he’s got further changes along those same lines in mind. I still wouldn’t feel entirely comfortable buying a used car from him, but as prime minister of Israel, I trust him.