Former Prime Minister Olmert Convicted of Fraud — and that Could Deprive the Pro-Peace ‘Left’ of a Potential Hero

[This analysis was written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Every Spy a Prince and Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, for The Jerusalem Post and the website of the non-stop TV news service broadcasting from Israel, i24news.tv.]

What a pity. One of Israel’s best prime ministers ever has just been convicted of accepting a bribe. Ehud Olmert might be the first Israeli prime minister to be sent to jail, following one of the biggest and most severe fraud scandals ever exposed in Israel.

Ehud Olmert, when prime minister

Ehud Olmert, when prime minister

There’s no doubt. Olmert, who served as prime minister for three and a-half years, until July 2009, deserves to be punished and punished severely. Israel, which already has a formerpPresident (Moshe Katsav) serving time for sex crimes, a former finance minister (Avraham Hershson) who did time for fraud, and dozens of Knesset members and public officials who have been suspected and/or convicted of corruption, needs to send a clear and strong message that corruption is intolerable.

Olmert, never a popular figure in his Likud party, was nonetheless recognized as an ambitious and sly politician. As a young guy he was elected to the Knesset – Israel’s parliament — and served for a decade as mayor of Jerusalem and later as Deputy Prime Minister.

When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fell into a coma in January 2006, from which he never recovered, Olmert took over for a short interim period, after which he was elected prime minister.

He proved himself to be a competent leader, ready to take tough and sometimes risky decisiosn for Israel’s national interests.

It was Olmert who in 2007 had the guts, despite the uncertainties and fears of a major escalation, to order the Israel Air Force to bomb a nuclear reactor being built in Syria, before it became radioactive and operational. And it was Olmert who cleverly formulated the decision to keep silent about the operation, neither confirming nor denying responsibility, thus helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad swallow his pride and not retaliate.

Netanyahu: his, the only game in town

Netanyahu: his, the only game in town

In his memoirs, “Decision Points,” President George W. Bush wrote that Olmert had first asked him for the US to bomb the facility. Olmert ordered the attack only after Bush refused and said he would prefer diplomatic action and sanctions.

The decision to destroy the Syrian reactor was made despite the unforgettable opposition of Olmert’s Defense Minister, Ehud Barak. In retrospect it was one of the most important strategic decisions in Israel’s history, along with the similar daring decision taken in 1981 by Prime Minister Menachem Begin to bomb and destroy Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor near Baghdad.

Four months after the destruction of the Syrian reactor, Olmert approved another daring operation – instructing the Mossad to kill Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s “defense minister” and one of the most wanted terrorists in the world. Mughniyeh was killed by a cleverly planted bomb in Damascus, Syria. The assassins left no traces.

Even the two controversial wars launched during Olmert’s premiership – one in the summer of 2006 against Hezbollah in Lebanon and the second in December 2008 against Hamas in Gaza — proved in retrospect very effective and helped Israel maintain its deterrence vis-à-vis the two terror groups.

As a member of Sharon’s government, and subsequently as Prime Minister, Olmert’s world view and ideology underwent a dramatic change. He realized that his right-wing, sometimes extreme right-wing opinions, with which he grew up (his father was a right-wing Knesset member), in support of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and rejection of a Palestinian state, were not compatible with reality.

Olmert became deeply involved in negotiations with the Palestinians, forming a personal and professional friendship with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

With the concessions he was willing to make, his ambition and drive, and above all his pragmatic flexibility, if Olmert had remained in power Israel would have achieved an agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

Now, following his conviction, Olmert’s political career is over. There is no chance, not even the slimmest one, that he can stage a comeback. Many Israelis, who are disappointed with Prime Minister’s Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s rigid and uncompromising policies, were hoping to see Olmert return.

With Olmert possibly on his way to a prison cell, and no other candidate in sight, the peace camp is left with no serious candidate: no one to mount a viable challenge against Netanyahu.

Israel is left with the notion that there is only one game in town – Bibi’s.

March 31, 2014

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