Mr. Olmert Without Tears
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
It is hard to feel very sorry for Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who resigned from his position two days ago. He is said to be a nice person, warm to his friends, and considerate to his staff. This may be true, just as it is true that he is a skillful politician. But he brought about his own downfall — and did it, not, as in a Greek tragedy, by blindly stumbling into it, but by courting it with open eyes.
The politician who makes a habit of lining his pockets illegally because he thinks he can get away with it does not inspire in us, as Aristotle says of the tragic hero, pity and terror. If he makes us feel anything stronger than derision, it is disgust.
Apart from perhaps being the first prime minister of Israel to go to jail, Mr. Olmert will be remembered, certainly for one, and possibly for two, things. The certain thing is the failed 2006 war in Lebanon. The possible thing is the peace negotiations he has been conducting with the Palestinian Authority and the government of Syria.
And yet, ironically, while Mr. Olmert has been castigated by all for the war in Lebanon and praised by many for his talks with the Palestinians and the Syrians, it should be the other way around. The war was not really his fault. The talks have been a blunder that are entirely his own.
When Mr. Olmert decided to go to war in the summer of 2006, he was acting, within the limits of what he knew, perfectly reasonably. He had been prime minister for only a few months. Hezbollah had delivered an intolerable provocation, crossing the international border to kill and kidnap Israeli soldiers. Here was a chance to teach it, and all of Israel’s enemies, a lesson while driving it from southern Lebanon and destroying its infrastructure there.
The army told Mr. Olmert that it would be a cinch. The few hundred irregular fighters manning Hezbollah’s positions in the Lebanese south would be crushed by Israel’s air power before they could manage to fire many of their Katyusha rockets into northern Israel.
The army turned out to be wrong. Israel’s air power couldn’t do the job. Military intelligence had underestimated how well dug-in Hezbollah was. The Katyushas rained down day after day. And when the army decided that the only way to root out Hezbollah was to send in ground troops, it again assured Mr. Olmert that it would all be over quickly. The Hezbollah fighters hunkered down in their bunkers might be safe from bombs, but they couldn’t hold out against divisions of Israel’s infantry.
The army was wrong again. Most of the bunkers held out, the Katyushas kept falling, and the war ended inconclusively, which meant a victory for Hezbollah. Instead of strengthening Israel’s deterrent power, it only weakened it, at the cost of over a hundred dead and a demoralized public. It was indeed a disaster — but no one could blame Mr. Olmert for it.
He had no way of knowing that the army was living in a fantasy world. Had he ignored its advice by not reacting powerfully to Hezbollah’s provocation, or by calling off the war without sending in infantry, he would have been castigated, too. The only difference is that he would then have been called an indecisive weakling rather than a shoot-from-the-hip adventurer.
But Mr. Olmert’s peace talks have been something else. True, they were a result of the 2006 war. Unable, because of its consequences, to continue implementing Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan, on whose platform he had been elected, Mr. Olmert cast about for an alternative policy and hit upon the pre-Sharon strategy of the Labor Party of trading land for peace.
At first, this was probably a knowing ploy to create an illusion of purposefulness that he, a former right-winger, did not much believe in himself. Yet the deeper into trouble he got because of the corruption charges against him, the more the ploy became a life raft that he clung to in the hope that no one would throw a dedicated peacemaker overboard.
And to keep the raft afloat, he began to make concession after concession on both the Palestinian and Syrian fronts without getting anything substantial in return, while in the bargain helping the Syrian regime to extricate itself from its international isolation.
Fortunately, Mr. Olmert, although he will continue to be acting prime minister for several more weeks or months until a successor is chosen, does not have the time or the political leverage to push the peace talks begun by him much further. And yet the concessions that he has already made, and that he may still make before moving out of the prime minister’s office, will come back to haunt Israel in the future.
No matter how Israel’s governments legitimately try to argue that they are not bound by offers Mr. Olmert has made to re-divide Jerusalem, to give dozens of square kilometers of Israel’s territory to a Palestinian state, to re-admit a to-be-negotiated number of Palestinian refugees, and to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights, the international community, let alone the Arab states, will from now on regard these as Israel’s positions that must not be backtracked from.
It is indeed hard to feel sorry for him. It is easier to feel sorry for the country that has been led by him.
Mr. Halkin is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.