Readers looking for a modicum of introspection or self-reproach from former prime minister Ehud Olmert will find nary a trace in the 900-page Hebrew-language memoir he penned behind bars, “In Person,” which might more suitably be titled, “Everyone wronged me and I’m still waiting for their apologies.”
From the very first pages of the long-winded and deeply conspiratorial tome, released on March 22 by Yedioth Books, Olmert, 72, proclaims his innocence of all of the graft accusations that landed him in prison (he was released after 16 months in June 2017). His main explanation for his fall from grace: “Right-wing extremist forces,” backed by faceless Jewish American billionaires, were in cahoots with the Israeli left-leaning legal system to topple his government.
“As I noted, two forces worked in parallel, independent of one another, but at some stage they converged, and maybe even cooperated. The first: extremist right-wing forces, who saw in me – correctly – a real threat,” insists Olmert, referring to his hopes to evacuate all but a few West Bank settlements. The second group was law enforcement, primarily the state prosecutors, whom he characterizes as an “army of purists,” above reproach.
In Olmert’s account, his peace proposal to the Palestinians sent the right-wing into a tizzy and sicced the prosecution and media at his jugular. Why the latter groups, characterized by Olmert himself as left-wing, would be eager to torpedo a peace deal eludes this reader of the book.
“In Person” includes more than a few engaging accounts of Israeli decision-making under Olmert — particularly the strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor (confirmed by the military censor ahead of the publication of his book) — along with some amusing, self-deprecating observations of washing floors and cutting salads in prison with state secrets locked in his head.
But those reflections are drowned out by Olmert’s conspiracy theories and his most unappealing lack of remorse, along with a laundry list of petty, thin-skinned grudges against former allies and rivals alike and an inclination to linger on their “weaknesses.”
A sample: Former prime minister Ehud Barak, while “brilliant,” is “insensitive to the needs or expectation of others, self-centered to the extreme, and unreliable on matters big and small,” writes Olmert. Barak was also “dangerous,” would sleep through meetings, always tried to undermine Olmert’s leadership, has the distinction of being “perhaps the worst prime minister in the history of the state,” and was a nearly pathological liar to boot, in Olmert’s telling.
His former foreign minister Tzipi Livni “lacks decision-making capabilities and leadership skills” and never truly posed a political challenge to his leadership, he snipes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “afraid of making decisions,” was “arrogant” in opposing the Iran deal and going head-to-head with then-US president Barack Obama, and is deeply hedonistic, says Olmert, who is also not above mocking his successor’s hairline and Barak’s height. When it comes to Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife and an educational psychologist by profession, he remarks caustically: “It is the good fortune of the children of Jerusalem that Ms. Netanyahu rarely shows up to work.”
Olmert also takes pains to differentiate himself from Netanyahu, who is under investigation in a series of cases and has also denied all wrongdoing while casting the probes as politically motivated. Olmert’s infamous pen collection, for example, is nothing at all like the Netanyahus’ cigars and champagne, he stresses. Sara Netanyahu has her own makeup artist (“This is unprecedented”) and Benjamin Netanyahu has spent thousands of dollars on a hair stylist, while Olmert had home visits from a barber at just NIS 100 a pop and ten-minute makeup sessions before TV interviews, he boasts.
And the hit list goes on: Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was “fragile” and “fell apart” before the Six Day War.” Meretz’s former leader Zehava Galon is a “chatterbox.” Yossi Sarid was “self-centered” and “despite all of his talents, was not made of leadership material.”
The “corrupt” police force declared a “cruel, aggressive” war on him, claims Olmert. “They wanted to embarrass me, to hurt me, to undermine my credibility and to bring about my immediate downfall.”
His former-aide-turned-state-witness Shula Zaken, whose recorded tapes landed him in prison, is cast by Olmert as greedy and power-hungry — and a liar who pretended to be religious to dodge military service. She was a “dolled-up, gambling-addicted grandmother who cannot curb her desire [for money],” he writes.
Then-attorney general Menachem Mazuz was an opportunist who saw indicting Olmert as his ticket to the High Court. Then-state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss was a “criminal who must stand trial” for allegedly leaking information to the media. But none is cast in as villainous a light as former state attorney Moshe Lador. And don’t even get him started on the long list of journalists, judges and prosecutors who wronged him, or former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon who criticized his handling of the 2006 Second Lebanon War (“the most successful large-scale military campaign that Israel was involved in for decades”).
Just two weaknesses
Does Ehud Olmert — Israel’s first prime minister put behind bars on a series of corruption charges, including bribery — have any “weaknesses?”
In the hundreds of pages of writing, the former prime minister, minister, Jerusalem mayor, and long-time MK (as a freshman lawmaker, he made a name for himself as an anti-corruption crusader) admits to just two. The first is a weakness for flattery (“I’ve already stated that it’s difficult to argue with things that massage the ego”). That self-stated flaw permeates the book in his tendency to play up the compliments of world leaders, from former US president George W. Bush to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A second flaw, raised with regard to his former aide, claims Olmert, is a tendency to be “too trusting.”
“I failed in placing too much trust, in good faith [in Zaken], but I was never a direct or indirect participant in some illegal act,” he says.
Make no mistake, Olmert warns his readers, judges in Israel are liable to bend their rulings to public opinion, which is why, in his book, he was sent to prison in the first place. The Supreme Court justices who ruled on his appeal “caved to populism. They feared exonerating me entirely over concerns that have nothing to do with pure legal ruling, nothing to do with justice, fairness, and compassion. It’s time to say it. Pleasant, unpleasant, provocative or not – this is the truth, and it is my obligation to say it.”
Gilad Shalit ‘had it easy’
Balancing out the brutal character assassinations in the book is hyperbolic praise for men he admired (and who, as he painstakingly points out, were equally enamored of him), from Bush to Moshe Dayan to, more unexpectedly, the right-wing Yitzhak Shamir (“made of steel”) and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (“an honest and direct man”).
But his list of grievances is overwhelming, extending beyond his political circle into near-verboten territory among Israelis: criticizing the parents of fallen soldiers or soldiers in captivity.
Even as he emphatically states he will never argue with bereaved parents, he pouts about a 12-year-old snub by the then-freshly bereaved Israeli author David Grossman, whose son Uri was killed in Lebanon on Olmert’s watch, and who refused to shake his hand during a literary award ceremony a year later. “The truth is, I was hurt,” he writes. “Grossman could have accepted the award without coming to the ceremony, but to come to the ceremony, to insist on receiving the prestigious prize and a fat check from the prime minister – and to insult me? It seems ugly to me.”
He also squarely blames former IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held in Hamas captivity from 2006 to 2011, for his own abduction, and rails at the prisoner swap that secured Shalit’s release under Netanyahu. (“He could have got up, peeked through the opening of the turret, seen the terrorists, and shot at them. Instead, he jumped out of the tank empty-handed, left his weapon behind and gave himself over to the terrorists. They didn’t even intend to carry out a kidnapping, and planned to retreat to the Strip – but they were very happy for the ‘gift’ that fell into their hands, crossed the border, and ran with Gilad back to the Strip.”)
Shalit had it easy in Hamas captivity, says the formerly incarcerated prime minister who bitterly complains about the high price of cologne in the Maasiyahu prison canteen. (There is “no punishment heavier or more oppressive than the loss of freedom,” he laments in the section on his prison term, even as he emphatically states he “didn’t suffer” in jail. A satisfying explanation for the need for cologne in prison even at a high cost is not, however, provided.)
“In retrospect, it turned out his living conditions were pretty easy. He wasn’t tortured and didn’t suffer, apart, of course, from the separation and isolation — that I don’t downplay of course,” writes Olmert of Shalit.
“I sent soldiers out on life-threatening missions, and he watched the World Cup live on television.”
‘Shudders’ at the thought of expressing remorse
In prison, writes Olmert, one topic was particularly popular among the inmates — the traditional one-third reduction of a criminal sentence for good behavior.
That is, until the parole board conditioned the early release of former president Moshe Katsav, jailed on rape and other sexual offenses, on his expression of regret.
“Many of us shuddered when we heard that former president Katsav was forced to express regret for the action for which he was convicted,” Olmert writes, arguing the board had no legal mandate to demand remorse from the prisoners.
“Would they also demand that I admit and express regret for an action I didn’t commit?” continues Olmert, who would go on to be released 16 months into his 27-month sentence without being asked to express regret.
“It seemed ludicrous to me. And if a drug dealer expresses regret, so what? Will that prevent him from returning to selling drugs the day after he is released? Will a pedophile stop committing sex crimes if he admitted to the charge and expressed regret? What purpose is there to regret?”