Working The Room

It isn’t every day that you get to practice nonchalance at this level. Last night, at the yearly New Year’s party of the indomitable Lea Van Leer (the moving force behind the Jerusalem Cinematheque), I was in conversation with a law professor friend about the careless meanings of the phrase “Jewish self-determination,” when Ehud Olmert, our current determiner-in-chief, unexpectedly broke into our circle. I should add that he and his remarkable wife Aliza could not help joining us. We were standing right in front of Lea's entrance, and the Olmerts (and their body guards) had just arrived—mind you, just as I was getting to the climax of my argument, which I pretended to reach as if the prime minister of Israel, for God’s sake, had not just interrupted my train of thought.

Actually, I have known Olmert off and on for over thirty years (come to think of it, I’ll just call him Ehud). I was a young scholar in Jerusalem, moonlighting as a journalist for the New York Review, and he was a new backbencher for the opposition (and newly formed) Likud. Ehud was no ideological gymnast. He was a thoroughly professional politician, the first I got to know, a parliamentary second to the jurist Shmuel Tamir, a centrist and independent civil rights advocate, who eventually became Menachem Begin’s first justice minister. Olmert was about my age, moreover, and I liked him almost immediately. I was angling to be a tough reporter, he was angling to be a charming source. He seemed eager to be noticed by American readers, but his warmth could not be explained by maneuver alone.

I NEVER MET Bill Clinton, but those who have been close to him speak about his love of people, or more precisely, the pleasure he took in being loved by people, which made him accessible, talkative, reciprocal, wonkish—willing to debate every point with you as if your opinion mattered, willing to gossip with you (or make you feel let in on some intimacy) as if you mattered. This, at any rate, is how I experienced Ehud from the start. I spoke to him every couple of years through the late 70s and early 80s. He would come for a meeting after a long day, and we would talk for a hour or two about what the Likud government might or might not do. He always seemed at a kind of ironic distance from the party, stressing its need for pragmatism; he’d speak with a kind of perverse pride about how his wife and children supported Peace Now. I once met him at an airport in the early 90s, and he confided (or pretended to) that he was mulling over a run for mayor of Jerusalem, to finally become a kind of independent. I told him I thought this would be a great job and wished him well.

None of this suggests a man who had not figured out how Israel’s political bread got buttered back then. Once he got to be mayor, he made common cause with the ultraOrthodox parties, which eventually took over the city. More and more, Ehud settled into the life of a rising star of Greater Israel, hitching eventually to Ariel Sharon. In 1988, after the first Intifada had started up, I brought Philip Roth to have lunch with him at the Knesset cafeteria, impulsively hoping that, when confronted by Roth's carefully wrought Americaness, he might avoid talking about American Jews as if they were merely material for Likud's Zioncraft. Roth asked how, in view of the violence, Israel could dream of holding the West Bank forever. Olmert replied that the West Bank could be held, but only if American Jews like Roth would finally come en masse to settle it. The violence, by inference, was the fault of Diaspora Jews who failed to seize the moment. The lunch did not last long.

Ehud (and Aliza) had let me interview them for my forthcoming book last winter. So when they came in last night, and started greeting us all, I did not feel abashed for too long. Pretty soon we were chatting amiably enough, picking up some of the themes from that interview, talking about his hopes for Annapolis, surrounded soon by other guests, many of whom knew him in a different way. I did not have to be told that everything was off the record: I’ll reveal that when I asked him what he liked least about being prime minister, he told me that it was the all-sided threats to his private life—which is why revealing anything more here would be particularly bad form, even if had said something earthshaking in our presence, which he did not.

BUT I HAVE to admit that, as we all stood there as midnight approached, feeling his pleasure in company, listening to his gossip about ministers and negotiation partners—hearing his ebullient mix of name-dropping, fading dogma and labyrinthine positioning—I wanted him very much to remain prime minister just now, a man without firm beliefs or heroic red lines, a fixer with a big problem to fix, a politician who intuitively seems to know that, to endure, Israel will have to work the world the way he was working the room.

For Ehud knows—this much he has said publicly—that he and the professional elites he personifies are running out of time to bring an agreement with the Palestinians; that the absence of an agreement will turn Israel into an international pariah just when it is utterly dependent on global integration. He knows that his chance to bring peace, this fateful year, is also his one chance to survive politically—to hold his coalition together, negotiate a package with the Palestinians discretely, and present it, in a big bang, to the Israeli public. He knows that, if America gets behind any deal, the Israeli public would not dare reject it. He knows that international forces will have to be involved in any solution. He knows that he needs to do things differently from his predecessors, who either postponed the inevitable on the West Bank, or lost their Knesset majorities by the time they were ready to act.

Will he get his chance? It is hard to say. Right after George Bush’s visit here next week, the final report of the Winograd Commission into the failures of the 2006 Lebanon War will be released. It is hard to think of anyone in Olmert’s coalition who has not at one time or another promised to resign if Olmert does not accept responsibility and do so himself. Polls show the old Likud under Bibi Netanyahu in a commanding lead right now. Then again, moderate coalition partners, including Barak’s Labor, cannot want a new election right now. So Ehud Olmert may well survive to fix his biggest problem yet. Anyway, when we finished singing “Auld Lang Syne” in that peculiar (now universal) lyric that seems to English what a Aramaic is to Hebrew, I was not the only one wishing Ehud blessings. We are not getting any younger. And this had better be a good year for him.