Ehud Olmert: The Failure of Style Over Substance

Ehud Olmert's announcement that he would step down from office caught no one by surprise. The drama surrounding the announcement was typical of Olmert, a Prime Minister who has always been much more style than substance. Israel treats its politicians … Read More

By / August 15, 2008

Ehud Olmert's announcement that he would step down from office caught no one by surprise. The drama surrounding the announcement was typical of Olmert, a Prime Minister who has always been much more style than substance.

Israel treats its politicians harshly, even by the cynical standards of the twenty-first century. Almost all leave office under a cloud of disgrace. Where American presidents, even those who left office in disgrace, are generally respected figures in their later lives, even towering figures like Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, and David Ben-Gurion, all held in almost idolatrous esteem in the United States, were treated much less ceremoniously in Israel.

On the flipside, disgraced leaders in Israel often have an easier time rehabilitating their image than do leaders in the United States, often even climbing the rungs of party politics to regain positions at the top of government. Such was the case with Ariel Sharon, who rebounded from the debacle of the first Lebanon War in 1982 to regain his position in the Likud Party, eventually becoming its leader and winning the premiership before forming his own party. Ehud Barak suffered the worst defeat of any incumbent Prime Minister ever, yet came back to lead the Labor Party and hold the Defense portfolio. Benjamin Netanyahu left office amid scandal and anger, after being soundly defeated by Barak, yet is currently the leading candidate for Prime Minister in most polls. Both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres regained the office after earlier tenures that were widely regarded as failures.

But Ehud Olmert is a different story. Never highly regarded to begin with, little was expected of him as a leader. That might well explain why he could survive his catastrophic failures, chiefly the disastrous 2006 Lebanon war, which might well have felled almost any previous prime minister. Instead, Olmert was brought down by much more mundane scandals, of the kind his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, easily weathered. Not ever having achieved a heroic stature, Olmert did not have far to fall-and likewise, has little hope of bouncing back up to his previous status.

Olmert's Political History

Ehud Olmert is a consummate politician. He was probably better suited to being a top adviser, a man who pulls the strings in anonymity, than being a public leader with all eyes on him as he conducts the show.

From his earliest days in politics, Olmert showed a keen sense for the game, whether in victory or defeat. He made a name for himself at the tender age of twenty-one, when in an impassioned speech at the Gahal alliance convention (a predecessor of today's Likud coalition) he called for the resignation of Gahal's leader, Menachem Begin, of Olmert's own Herut party.

Though Begin easily survived the challenge, Olmert had begun to build a reputation as a shrewd political thinker and a particularly gifted speaker. At the age of twenty-eight, he was elected to the Knesset, and, soon after, faced his first scandal, being accused of mishandling Likud funds in connection with a much larger scandal involving various crime figures, politicians and businesspeople. Though he managed to avoid scandal for a long time after, this might now be seen as a harbinger of things to come.

Olmert's skill for politics allowed him to steadily rise in the Likud coalition, but the center stage of Israeli politics always eluded him. His lack of charisma, his generally officious manner, and his lack of strong ideological fervor kept him from rising too far up the Likud list. He needed to find a way to make a bigger mark. He found it in 1993, mere months after the Likud fell completely out of the government for the first time since Begin's stunning victory in 1977. Olmert saw his opportunity in the aging mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. He ran against the much more liberal Kollek and defeated him.

Ehud Olmert's term as mayor saw the industrialization of Jerusalem and the development of its light rail system. But it was also characterized by sharpening divisions between Jews and Arabs in the city, both socially and physically, as well a marked increase in the politicization of the city. Olmert was very involved in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's moves to increasingly "Judaize" all of Jerusalem. Olmert was instrumental, for instance, in pushing forward such items as the opening of an archaeological tunnel in 1996 that sparked days of intense rioting. He was also a strong supporter of the construction of Har Homa, a settlement in East Jerusalem that continues to be a major disruption for Jerusalem's Palestinians and a serious obstacle to a peace agreement.

When Ariel Sharon rose from the political ashes and completed his long climb back to the top of Likud, Olmert again sensed opportunity. Hitching his wagon to the resurgent right and its charismatic leader, Olmert stepped into a more prominent role than ever in national politics. Fortune smiled on him when Sharon embarked on his "separation plan" from Gaza. In the mercurial Olmert, Sharon saw a man who could help to transform his image from the right-wing "bulldozer" and instigator of settlement drives to that of the conservative, pragmatic centrist. Olmert became Sharon's number two. Serving as the Prime Minister's second in command turned out to be even more fortuitous than Olmert could have imagined when Sharon lapsed into a coma after a stroke at the dawn of the new year of 2006.

Olmert's Premiership

Ehud Olmert is in many ways the antithesis of Sharon. He is not a charismatic or highly ideological leader, or one with great military skill. He assumed office at a time of great turmoil, even by Israel's standards. Mere weeks after he became acting Prime Minister, Hamas won a clear majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Tensions were brewing in the north with Hezbollah, and the disastrous American misadventure in Iraq had severely de-stabilized the whole region and greatly enhanced Iran's power.

Olmert did little to help Israel deal with these challenges. He was unable to chart a truly independent Israeli course. His failure to do so was magnified by the fact that, though he was considered a ‘friend' of the U.S. President, Olmert never received the kind of respect in Washington that his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, had. In dealing with Hamas, Lebanon and Iran, Israel became much more of a follower of the United States policy in the Middle East than the semi-independent entity it had always prided itself as being.

Nevertheless, despite such failings, during his tenure in office Olmert did demonstrate certain core strengths. When the leader of the state's workers' union, Amir Peretz, rose to lead the Labor Party, Olmert faced a leader who could potentially command a strong popular base. Though Peretz had a long way to go before he could reverse the decades-long decline of Labor, the Morroccan-born politician was bringing a fresh, Mizrahi face to Israeli politics, one that was neither religious nor conservative, and a commitment to combating social inequality and economic neo-liberalism.

Olmert refused to offer Peretz the office that held the most potential for him, the Finance Ministry. Instead, Peretz got the more prestigious Defense portfolio, which he could not refuse (which he did not wish to do-foolishly, Peretz seemed to covet the Defense job over the Finance one). Olmert was well aware that Peretz, who had risen only to the rank of captain in the army, was not equipped to handle the post. Predictably, Peretz not only failed in his role, he also presided over some of the greatest military humiliations Israel had endured since the 1973 Yom Kippur War: the loss of Gaza to Hamas, and the Second Lebanon War. By June 2007, Ehud Barak was not only back as Defense Minister and leading Labor again. Through machinations and a good deal of luck, Ehud Olmert relegated Labor to the role of a second-grade party and ensured that Kadima would be the party of the Israeli center.


Israel has seen military failures in its day, but never before had it entered into a military confrontation without clearly defined goals and an exit strategy. Yet that is precisely what Israel did in 2006, as its massive retaliation to Hezbollah's initial attack devastated southern Lebanon, killing thousands of civilians, displacing a million Lebanese and leaving the area littered with cluster bombs that continue to injure civilians to this day. The war in turn brought the greatest attacks on Israel since 1948, with the country's northern cities falling under a barrage of rockets, killing dozens of Israelis and displacing nearly half a million.

And it was all for nothing. In the end, the prisoner exchange Hezbollah wanted in July 2006 when it attacked Israel came about, with Israel releasing a notorious terrorist in exchange for the bodies of their two soldiers. Hezbollah emerged, as most informed analysts predicted, much stronger. And now, Hezbollah has apparently re-armed and virtually everyone agrees they are at least as much of a threat to Israel as they were before the war, if not more so.

If only Hezbollah was Olmert's only defeat. To the south, Hamas not only survived the Prime Minister, but did so holding onto one of its biggest bargaining chips: Gila Shalit, a POW seized by Hamas forces during a cross-border raid in June 2006. Olmert's attempts to weaken Hamas both militarily and economically have, as in Lebanon, only strengthened the movement, while helping to weaken Israel's so-called allies, the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, which presently runs the West Bank in conjunction with Israeli forces. Though Olmert could claim Fatah as an ally, it was a pyrrhic victory. Hamas and Hezbollah had still fought Israel to a standstill. And Fatah's willingness to talk to Israel is seriously impacting its popularity.

Israel is in a considerably worse position today than it was when Ehud Olmert first took office. Its standing in the international community was poor at the start of his term, but it is far worse now. Iran and its regional allies are stronger, and Israel has demonstrated unprecedented military weaknesses. That's an awful legacy to leave behind, but given the lack of commitment Israeli leaders have shown in recent years to resorting to negotiated political solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict, it was inevitable. That it would be Ehud Olmert who epitomized the endgame of this position is his deserved fate.

What Happens Now?

The future of Israel is always difficult to predict, but now it is just impossible. That future will depend as much on the American election as on the Israeli one.

Olmert's resignation was from the leadership of the ruling Kadima party. If their internal elections produce a new leader who can cobble together a government, general elections will not take place until they are normally due.

The two leading Kadima candidates are Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Minister of Transportation Shaul Mofaz. Livni is the more popular choice among the general population, while Mofaz appeals more to the right. Livni is seen as the cleanest of Israel's politicians, a major consideration after Olmert's disgrace. But Mofaz has generally escaped involvement in scandals as well and is much more connected to Kadima's inner circle. Livni offers expertise in diplomacy, which would put her in sync with an Obama White House. Mofaz is one of Israel's most experienced military leaders, which will appeal to Israelis concerned about Iran (Mofaz's own Iranian heritage may also help) and would be simpatico with a McCain Administration.

It is likely to come down to whether Kadima voters decide to support the candidate that is more likely to win a general election, Livni, or go for the party insider with the extensive military track record, Mofaz. While general population polls clearly favor Livni, among Kadima voters, the race is much closer.

Shaul Mofaz is not likely to be able to form a government, however, and if he cannot, Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu will be clear victors over a Kadima party led by Mofaz. The Labor Party is much more likely to remain in a government led by Livni than by Mofaz, and that is the key to Livni's greater potential to avoid general elections.

There is a real possibility that the next American government will push for a resolution of the Palestinian issue. The Bush years have produced a backlash and have demonstrated the danger, to Israel as well as to American interests of extreme passivity regarding the Palestinians. Obama may well take that lesson to heart. That doesn't mean they are suddenly going to pressure Israel into major concessions, but it could well mean that the Americans will be active in trying to resolve the conflict through diplomacy and quiet influence on Israel and Fatah. That's an idea Livni might be willing to accept. Mofaz would buck a bit more, but he, too, supports a two-state solution in the abstract.

A Netanyahu victory would be disastrous for Israel, and a tragedy for the greater Middle East. Bibi knows from experience that he is capable of resisting American pressure and, while he would not be likely to openly defy the United States, he learned well the art of foot-dragging and obstacle-building during the Clinton years.

On the Syrian front, the situation is much the same. Netanyahu is the golden boy of the American neoconservatives, and will surely resist peace with Syria. Livni and Mofaz would likely be much more agreeable, though. Both would realize the potential of peace with Syria for reining in Hezbollah and disrupting the Iranian connection to the region. Here again, the willingness of an Obama administration to push for such results will be key, and in both cases, while John McCain might be a bit different from Bush after the disastrous results of the last eight years, he is much less likely to dramatically depart from the Bush agenda.

Eventually, some Israeli Prime Minister is going to face the ultimate choice regarding the West Bank settlements. The Gaza withdrawal notwithstanding, every Prime Minister since Levi Eshkol has — sometimes happily and loudly, sometimes grumpily and quietly– supported the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and the continued encroachment of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. At some point, this situation will force a choice on Israel: either reverse the settlement program or openly declare the intention to cover the West Bank with them. Despite his stated support for a two-state solution, this was a question Ehud Olmert scrupulously avoided. Perhaps his successor will be able to do so as well, but the time for that decision is coming. That leader will make a choice between continuing the spiral into chaos that has characterized twenty-first century Israel or pulling back and making Israel the state it can be. One can only hope for a leader with more substance than style when that day comes.

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