Ehud Olmert

Israel’s prime minister had one epiphany. He needs another.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Epiphany can hit the most unlikely person—at the most unexpected time. Less than three years ago, it struck Ehud Olmert, a man who had inherited his place in politics and up until then conducted a reasonably cynical and decidedly right-wing career, replete with well-tailored suits, extensive overseas travel, cigars, and (it’s been alleged) expensive fountain pens from influential friends. The light told Olmert that Israel could not continue ruling over the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and should pull out unilaterally, without trying to negotiate peace. The first part was not a new idea in Israeli politics. Olmert had almost certainly heard it for years from his left-wing wife and children, while he combed a few strands of hair over his bare pate in the morning. Finally he believed and had a plan for how to make withdrawal happen.

But now that he is prime minister—not a job anyone expected him to get—his grand idea is in big trouble. Israel’s current campaigns in Gaza and Lebanon are best understood as efforts to salvage his strategy of unilateralism. At the start of this confrontation, Olmert depended mainly on air power, in an attempt to show that the threats from across the border could be handled without reoccupation and that Israel can shatter Hamas and Hezbollah even after withdrawal. Most Israelis, however, are learning the opposite lesson. To preserve his vision of leaving the West Bank, Olmert needs a second epiphany, on the need to negotiate.

Olmert’s initial conversion apparently came in the fall of 2003. He announced it, for those paying attention, at the graveside of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, on the 30th anniversary of his death. Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was supposed to speak but had the flu, so, as his deputy, Olmert filled in. Praising Ben-Gurion, he quoted words the old man spoke in parliament in 1949, the year after Israel became independent: “Faced with the choice of all the land without a Jewish state or a Jewish state without all the land, we chose a Jewish state without all the land.” Ben-Gurion was explaining why Israel had just signed an armistice that left the West Bank—a large piece of the homeland Jews had sought for their state—in Arab hands. If Israel had conquered the land, it would have had an Arab majority. Olmert said that Israel’s leaders would soon need to make a similar compromise.

If, say, George W. Bush had stood at FDR’s grave and praised liberalism, the New Deal, and Social Security, it would have been considerably less surprising. For Ben-Gurion spoke in response to criticism from the right-wing party Herut, which was made up of veterans of the pre-independence Irgun underground (“terror group” would be a more accurate label). Herut claimed the whole land of Israel for the Jews—by which it meant all of present-day Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan to boot. Ehud Olmert’s father, Mordechai, was an Irgun man who later served two terms as a Herut Knesset member. Ehud, 2 years old when Israel became independent, grew up among Herut loyalists. He was an aristocrat of the hard right, a child of the “fighting family,” as the Irgun veterans called themselves.

By age 21, a law student fresh out of army service, Olmert had followed his father into right-wing politics. He was elected to the Knesset in 1973 at the age of 28 as a representative of Likud, an alliance of rightist groups that had coalesced around Herut, in opposition to the ruling Labor party. By that time, Israel had conquered the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. The Likud advocated keeping every inch of the land.

Olmert originally made his name in parliament as an anti-corruption zealot. It was a good way to bash Labor, and it apparently also taught Olmert how to stay a millimeter or two within the law. He was indicted once for fraud related to fund raising in the 1988 election campaign, but then acquitted. A long bribery investigation ended in 2004 without an indictment. Just this week, anonymous police sources said there were insufficient grounds to investigate allegations that for years, Olmert had received fountain pens worth thousands of dollars from businessmen interested in influencing him.

In 1993, with Likud out of power, Olmert preserved his career by running for mayor of Jerusalem, defeating the exhausted octogenarian Teddy Kollek. By then, some of the Irgun princes had expressed doubts about the vision of Greater Israel. Olmert did not admit similar doubts. As mayor, he appeared at the right’s frenzied rallies against the Oslo peace process. He swung a sledgehammer in 1996 to help open the tunnel in Old Jerusalem that enraged Palestinians, who saw it as a threat to nearby Islamic shrines—an incident that sparked days of bloodletting.

Right-wing gestures aside, Olmert was a terrible mayor. “At 4 a.m., Kollek was up, writing down the serial number of a street light that had gone out, so it would be fixed by 10,” says an attorney long involved in Jerusalem affairs. “At that hour, Olmert was in the VIP lounge, flying in or out of the country.” The city became dirty. Young, educated Israelis moved out. When Olmert returned to national politics in 2003, he barely made it into parliament. But Sharon saw him as a loyal ally against their shared rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, and made him deputy prime minister.

Olmert’s speech at Ben-Gurion’s grave site could not have been aimed at restoring his Likud standing. Perhaps he was moved by reports that showed the Palestinian population in the land under Israeli rule approaching parity with the Jewish population. “More and more Palestinians will say …: ‘There is no place for two states between Jordan and the sea. All we want is the right to vote,’ ” Olmert said in an interview with the country’s largest-circulation newspaper. Unless Israel ceded land, it would become a binational state. “I shudder to think that liberal Jewish organizations that shouldered the burden of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa will lead the struggle against us,” he warned. Apartheid was not a word that a Likud politician was supposed to use.

But Olmert didn’t want to give up the whole West Bank, especially not the largest Israeli settlements there. And he didn’t anticipate a deal with the Palestinians that he could accept. Therefore, he argued, Israel should choose the new border itself. Soon after, Sharon announced his plan for pulling out of Gaza. Had Olmert played the role of stalking horse, as is often suggested? It seems more likely that the idea was originally Olmert’s and that he convinced Sharon. In his previous incarnation as classic rightist, Olmert had spoken like a man reciting the rote catechisms learned in childhood. Now, it seemed, he’d discovered true faith.

The Gaza pullout a year ago cracked the Likud and forced Sharon to create his new Kadima party. And then Sharon had his stroke, and Olmert ran for prime minister in his stead. Sharon’s appeal was his military record, with its victories and excesses. Olmert, lacking a myth, used a startling campaign strategy: He presented a clear platform on Israel’s most important and divisive issue, the future of the occupied territories. It worked. The March election gave a clear majority to parties favoring withdrawal from much of the West Bank, and a plurality to Olmert.

The abduction of soldiers from inside Israel and the missiles now hitting the country, however, show the risks of leaving without a negotiated agreement to put someone clearly in charge beyond the border. Olmert’s air offensive in Lebanon and Gaza appears designed to show that Israel can defend itself without sending troops back to occupy the land it has left. And by arresting Palestinian Authority officials in Gaza who belong to Hamas, Olmert also hopes to end Hamas control of the PA government so that withdrawal will seem safer. But polls show plummeting support. Once-supportive pundits are criticizing the idea of “throwing the keys” over the border fence on the way out to whoever picks them up. Chaos in the West Bank, or a hostile regime there, risks missiles falling on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

To salvage his planned withdrawal, then, Olmert will need to reconsider unilateralism. From his first late-life revelation he learned that Israel could not rule over the Palestinians. Yet he still expected to impose his will on them. It won’t work. To leave the West Bank, Israel needs a stable regime there, committed to an end of hostilities and able to enforce that policy. The only way Palestinian moderates can gain that power is by showing that through diplomacy they can deliver what their public wants: independence. They could agree to minor fixes in the pre-1967 borders but not to Israel annexation of swaths of land, as Olmert has sought till now.

Unless he wants to lose power, or return to rightist positions he has already recognized as bankrupt, Olmert will need another epiphany: Unilateralism won’t free Israel of the West Bank. For that, he needs to sit down with the Palestinians.