On Monday morning, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrived with his motorcade at Maasiyahu Prison in the town of Ramle. He exited his vehicle accompanied by a Shin Bet security detail, but a few short steps later, as he entered the prison complex through a back entrance, his bodyguards stayed behind: For the next 19 months, Olmert, 70, will be imprisoned after being found guilty of bribery and obstruction of justice last year.
Olmert is the first Israeli prime minister to be convicted in court. He is also the most senior public figure to be sent to Maasiyahu, where former Israeli president and convicted rapist Moshe Katsav is also serving his sentence. (An empathetic Katsav has reportedly offered to “mentor” Olmert.) In a video statement, Olmert admitted to mistakes, though he believed his actions not to be of a criminal nature. “As Prime Minister I was entrusted with the highest responsibility to secure the safety of Israeli citizens, and today I am the one who will be sent behind bars,” he said. There is very little to suggest that Olmert did not deserve to be sent to prison, and many believe he was let off easy (an initial six years of prison time was carved down after Olmert’s lawyers appealed). But there is also very little joy in this particular dispensing of justice: Olmert’s story is a tragic one—no less for his country than for him.
A decade ago, Olmert’s star was firmly on the rise. A career politician with the right-wing Likud party and former mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert had fallen out of favor with the party activists, prompting him to help engineer the long-awaited “big bang” of Israeli politics: then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s split from the Likud to form the centrist Kadima. Olmert was jettisoned from the Likud back benches to the forefront of national politics as Sharon’s second-in-command. When in January 2006 Sharon fell into the coma from which he would never recover, Olmert was appointed acting prime minister. After Kadima swept the Knesset elections that March, Olmert became prime minister in his own right. His declared agenda was the “Realignment Plan”—following up on the 2005 Gaza disengagement with further unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank.
Much has been written about the prolonged and frustratingly ineffectual July 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah. With 165 Israelis killed and the north of the country paralyzed by rocket strikes, it was decidedly a low point of Olmert’s premiership, though it did, in retrospect, put a stop to the frequent Hezbollah attacks on the northern border that were a fixture of the years leading up to the war. Olmert emerged more or less unscathed, but his Realignment Plan was mothballed. He regrouped and on September 6, 2007, a week before Rosh Hashana 5768, he began what was surely his annus mirabilis. If one is to believe the non-Israeli media outlets (who due to state censorship often quote the foreign press on matters of national security), Olmert ordered Israeli fighter jets to bomb a nuclear reactor under construction in the northeast of Syria.
On February 12, 2008, Imad Mughniyeh, the senior Hezbollah military leader found his demise in a suburb of Damascus. On August 8, 2008, the Syrian officer Muhammad Suleiman, a close adviser to President Bashar Assad and allegedly his envoy to Iran and Hezbollah, met a similar end. Syria, with its ties to Hezbollah, was still seen as the primary threat to the country, and those three operations (never formally acknowledged by Israel, perhaps to allow Assad to save face) arguably did more for its national security than the 2006 war. Most remarkably, they were accompanied by a relentless courtship of Assad by Olmert, who was hellbent on striking a peace deal with Syria just as he was chipping at the former’s most strategic assets. His efforts opposite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were similarly persistent.
Olmert’s corruption—mysterious envelopes filled with cash, real estate developments greenlit in exchange for bribes, and his attempts to prevent key witnesses from testifying against him—stinks to high heaven. But his ability to be both hawk and dove at the same time is sorely missed in the Israeli political spectrum today. Contrast Olmert’s achievement in gaining the relative support of European Union leaders during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (which took place over the final weeks of Olmert’s premiership in late 2008 and early 2009) with the animosity that greeted subsequent Gaza campaigns; or Olmert’s easy repartee with President Bush (who was far more demanding of his Israeli counterparts than some choose to remember) with the chilly relationship Prime Minister Netanyahu has with President Obama.
Current and future Israeli leaders have much to learn from Olmert’s sad story: chiefly, the dangers of unabated arrogance and greed. That the lessons of his statesmanship loom just as large makes his story all the more sad.
Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.