Rabid soccer fandom is Ehud Olmert’s guiding political principle. Now his game is over.
On February 10, the citizens of Israel will vote in a new prime minister. We would be happy to get an Obama-like figure who symbolizes change and tells us, “Yes, we can.” But at the moment, our candidates include two former prime ministers who failed in their previous terms and were embroiled in quite a few public scandals, and one new candidate who still hasn’t been able to inspire Israeli citizens with hope and a sense of security, no matter how much we want her to. But Tuesday won’t only be the day a new prime minister is elected; on that day, Israel will say goodbye to the present prime minister, one whom I will not miss.
The story of Ehud Olmert’s ascension to prime minister is a bit Gogolesque. The Kadima party was established to be a more moderate alternative to the Likud, from which it had broken away. Its electoral strength was based on fondness for its founder, Ariel Sharon. When Sharon suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 2006, Olmert became the party’s default leader. Kadima’s campaign was built around Sharon and his doctrine of disengagement. In some sense, voters cast their ballots for Kadima and got Olmert as prime minister—the same Olmert who, as mayor of Jerusalem, had succeeded in turning the capital from a vibrant, intellectual, young metropolis into a sad, grey city with an ever-growing ultra-Orthodox population.
Every political leader has a public image that determines his actions and method of operation. Sharon was the father, the one who takes responsibility, hides things from his children (even lying to them), but always has their best interests at heart. Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak were the smooth-talking, high-tech CEOs, the kind who ran the country as if it were a problematic start-up, who are obligated to their shareholders, but no more so than to themselves. And Olmert was and has remained the sports fan.
If you stop the average Israeli on the street and ask him to tell you something about Olmert, it’s doubtful he would know anything about the series of parliamentary functions he filled, the list of criminal allegations he’s been questioned about, or even the seemingly endless number of collections in his possession, including apartments sold to him at low prices and under suspicious circumstances and expensive pens. What that passerby can tell you for sure is that Mr. Olmert has been Beitar Jerusalem’s number one fan. He not only regularly attends their soccer games, but always makes sure to tell interviewers about his loyalty to the club, especially when he’s trying to bolster his just-one-of-the guys image.
Beitar Jerusalem is a soccer club with a clear right-wing affiliation (the name “Beitar” is taken from the hawkish youth movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky), and its large fan base is known for being the most violent of any in the country. In the 1980s, comic Gavri Banai performed a popular sketch in which he played a Beitar fan in a TV interview who dictates a series of ultimatums to the team owner about how the club should be run, ending each sentence with the words, “… if you don’t, we’ll burn down the clubhouse.” At a certain point, the interviewer asks Banai why he keeps threatening to burn down the clubhouse, and after a bit of thought, he answers, “Because it’s made of wood.”
That, if you will, is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He is always angry and insulted by the way everyone behaves, from the police chief to the Hezbollah chief, from Tzipi Livni to Condoleezza Rice. Ehud Olmert is the kind of guy who insists on interrupting the president of the United States mid-speech, knowing that he will quickly take the Beitar fan’s call, before the fan burns down the clubhouse. What’s interesting about this Bush anecdote is that Olmert saw the need to share it proudly on television, even at the cost of the obvious damage it would cause to the relationship between the two countries. And why was he actually so proud of that moment, the sort of moment Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, and even the arrogant Ehud Barak, if they were in his place, would have kept secret? Because his pride isn’t that of a leader, but of a rabid sports fan whose greatest accomplishment is his ability to bully the people around him.
Olmert’s current club, unfortunately, is not Beitar, but the Middle East. It isn’t made of wood, but he’s already managed to burn it down twice, and the reason is exactly the one in Gavri Banai’s sketch: it’s made of flammable material. In both the second Lebanese War and the Gaza offensive, it was clear that Israel had to resort to a military response. In both cases, Olmert was surrounded by experts who explained to him that a much more moderate attack would cause fewer casualties on both sides and achieve exactly the same objectives. And in both cases, Ehud Olmert ignored that advice and pulled out all the stops. Did the ground attack in Lebanon significantly impair Hezbollah’s fighting force, and did the continued bombing of Gaza, long after the Israeli army had achieved its bank of objectives, help arrive at a better agreement or solution? I doubt it. But the person behind the decision-making wasn’t a responsible adult or even a smooth-talking CEO. It was an angry and violent Ehud Olmert who, rather than venting his rage on his team, turned every regional clash into a war.
On Tuesday, the citizens of Israel will vote in a new prime minister. The polls now predict victory for Bibi, and the alternatives don’t exactly thrill me either. Still, I prefer to look at the bright side of February 10, 2009. It’ll be the day Ehud Olmert finally vacates the prime minister’s chair and goes back to his natural habitat—the VIP stands at Beitar’s stadium. There, between criminal investigations and bribery trials, he can be angry again, insult and even curse the players or the referee, and do all of it without losing a single human life.