Ehud Olmert, convicted this week of bribery, was not the first corrupt prime minister in Israel’s history. Some would say he was also not the most corrupt.
Olmert’s crimes, including the many suspicions that never materialized into convictions, seem petty indeed when stacked against the decades-long complaints against, for example, Ariel Sharon.
With wealthy foreigners inexplicably investing in the latter’s Negev ranch, multi-million-dollar foreign consulting contracts for his sons, illegal political fundraising that actually landed his son Omri in prison, and others, there are few Israelis who doubt Sharon, though never convicted, was less than a paragon of public virtue.
And personal corruption was hardly the worst that could be alleged against Israel’s 11th prime minister. With his failure to prevent Sabra and Shatila, his 1982 advance on Beirut apparently without the approval of his own prime minister, the brutal excesses of Unit 101 in the 1950s, and on and on, Israel’s most talented military commander was also famously its most ruthless.
Yet in the Israeli public imagination Sharon is lauded while Olmert — the man who took over when Sharon slipped into a coma in 2006 — is reviled. Sharon is missed by the same Israelis who would like nothing more than to forget Olmert, his ostensible political heir.
And in that gap lies a larger story of political malaise and ideological confusion that has driven Israelis away from the ballot box and fractured the country’s legislative politics beyond recognition and, some fear, beyond any easy repair.
The accidental prime minister
Olmert was elected prime minister in 2006 with 690,901 votes, giving him control of 24 percent of the Knesset, enough to cobble together a stable centrist coalition.
No one can take that victory away from him. But it is nevertheless a strange achievement for a man so disliked by voters, a man who made his way to the apex of Israeli politics without ever attracting a constituency around himself.
Olmert became mayor of Jerusalem in 1993 following the 28-year administration of the legendary Teddy Kollek. His victory marked a Likud conquest of the capital away from the old Labor elite, made possible only through a new ballot-box alliance between poorer Mizrahi and underrepresented ultra-Orthodox voters. Neither group saw Olmert as one of their own, but both saw in him a vehicle for wresting control of their city from the octogenarian, five-term Laborite Kollek.
Olmert served a similar role for Sharon when the latter anointed him his successor in the Likud in February 2003.
Olmert was unloved in the Likud — dramatically so. An August 2003 Israel Radio poll, conducted six months into Sharon’s second government, found that just 1.4% of Likud voters believed Olmert should lead the party, behind Sharon (48.6%), Netanyahu (23.1%), former IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz (11.4%), and even the uncharismatic Silvan Shalom (1.6%).
When the same poll removed the front-runner Sharon from the list, Netanyahu and Mofaz shot up (48.3% and 22.9% respectively), but Olmert still languished at just 2.9%. Even Sharon’s supporters in the party didn’t see his chosen heir as a desirable successor.
Why, then, would Sharon appoint the Likud’s least-loved leader his principal deputy, a post that would make him the acting prime minister after Sharon’s second stroke in January 2006?
The answer, of course, is precisely because he was so unpopular. Unlike Netanyahu, or even Mofaz, who each had a base of support in the party that might enable them to resist and challenge Sharon, Olmert depended utterly on his boss and patron. That’s how a man who in 1978 actually voted in the Knesset against the Likud-brokered peace treaty with Egypt because it included an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai suddenly became the most vocal advocate for Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza.
In the Likud as in the Jerusalem municipality, Olmert’s political rise was less a function of who he was than of who he wasn’t. He wasn’t Teddy, and he wasn’t Netanyahu. Indeed, his great victory in 2006 cannot be fully understood without noting that that election also saw the lowest turnout in Israeli electoral history.
And in that he was, perhaps, an apt symbol of a new age of Israeli politics, one in which the grand narratives of the past seemed increasingly irrelevant to the challenges of the present, and where the very declaiming of a discernible ideological identity seemed suspect. After the 2000-2003 Second Intifada, most Israelis no longer believed the leftist trope that negotiated peace is possible or the rightist insistence that annexation of the West Bank is feasible or desirable.
Marching in the streets
In 2011, spurred by a handful of noisy demonstrators, two of whom are now MKs (Labor’s Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli), hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest the rising cost of living, political corruption, growing inequality and a long litany of connected complaints.
As many observers noted then and since, the protests were immense, popular and passionate — but strangely vague and apolitical.
When the opposition Labor Party tried to take the lead in the protests, many of the leaders in the street resented the interference and “politicization.”
It was not, they explained, a movement of ideologues, but represented a broad popular consensus. And it was not directed, as one might expect given the popular frustration, against the sitting Prime Minister Netanyahu, but rather against the entire edifice of politics as it has developed in recent years in processes that, the demonstrators believed, had contributed to social atomization and political decline.
There was no clear demand, but rather a single, mobilizing impulse — that a deteriorated political class “return” to represent their public.
Olmert’s ideological indecisiveness — “indecisive” may have been the charge leveled most often at his handling of the Second Lebanon War — seemed to fit the confusion of the age, while his lack of personal achievement seemed in keeping with the sense that the best elements of Israeli society were no longer to be found in politics. Through his scandals and unpopularity, Olmert has come to represent more than any other senior politician the vague but palpable sense that our politics have failed us.
To be sure, there are reasons to welcome the decoupling of mythologized personality and political power for which Olmert is at least partly responsible. He was so unpopular for so much of his career that it is a near certainty that when voters chose him, they were backing not the man, but the priorities or political camps he represented.
The very fact that Olmert now stands convicted of corruption, a place where the heroic, larger-than-life Sharon never stood, suggests that the deheroicizing of politics may be a necessary precondition for the rule of law.
And yet something profound was also lost in the generational and cultural shift represented by Olmert’s succession of Sharon, something whose loss remains for many Israelis Olmert’s true unforgivable crime.
Love him or hate him, Ariel Sharon’s career, much like that of Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin or Shimon Peres, is inextricably bound up with what it means to be Israeli. Alongside Sharon’s corruption stand his immense achievements, including the very rescue of his homeland in war, countless examples of personal courage under fire and the blunt-spoken competence that characterizes his generation in the popular imagination.
Indeed, his lax relationship with authority and the law was a necessary precondition for some of his greatest contributions to his country. Sharon’s disregard for the military chain of command allowed him to advance across the Suez and help win the 1973 war. As housing minister during the unprecedented influx of Soviet immigration in the 1990s, he launched wave after wave of housing construction without waiting for legal niceties such as planning, zoning and budgeting — an oversight for which hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking Israelis would be grateful in the years that followed.
Even in his scoundrel proclivities, Sharon possessed — indeed, personified — a boundless faith in the potential and ability of Israel to overcome and triumph against all enemies and adversities. With all his shortcomings, his penchant for seizing the initiative, his courage and history-altering determination were a quintessentially Israeli story, or at least a story Israelis yearn to tell about themselves.
But what story can Israelis tell about Sharon’s successor, a professional politician elected in the old general’s political wake and promising to deliver his predecessor’s policies, yet bearing with him no triumphs, no defining charisma or even any distinctive vision for the country he sought to lead? It is hard, when one thinks about it, even to name a fact about Ehud Olmert’s career worth the knowing.