Friday, August 1, 2008

My Breakfast At Ehud's

Ehud Olmert's career has come to a sad end. He has announced that, in light of the continuing allegations against him, he'll step aside in September. This is a good thing for both the country and the peace process. He likely broke the law; he allowed rich foreign Jews to overindulge him too much. I have argued here before that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is the Israeli center's best hope for keeping Benjamin Netanyahu's grotesque coalition from power. A recent poll would seem to reinforce the point.

But people who've known Olmert over the years understand what a tragic result this is for a man of high intelligence, natural warmth, and genuine worldliness--in a way, the first Israeli prime minister who was cosmopolitan enough to see his country as others do. He was also a pro.

"I have to say I could never bring myself to dislike the guy," Ambassador Alvaro de Soto, the former UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, and (since his resignation) a harsh critic of many aspects of Olmert's performance, wrote me earlier today: "He may have been a dismal commander-in-chief, but he articulated the depth of the challenge facing Israel with astonishing candor. When it becomes clear to all that Israel is becoming, in Tom Friedman's words, 'permanently pregnant with a stillborn Palestinian state in its belly,' people might recall that he told them so."

OLMERT'S GREATEST FAILURE was his inability to stand up to generals in the cabinet room after soldiers were kidnapped on the northern border in the summer of 2006; generals with contingency plans, maps and reassurances. Political professional that he was, he was loathe to be thought outside the consensus established by military professionals--also by outdated Zionist institutions, American Jewish moguls, and a tabloid press. He told some journalists after the Lebanon war that this was his Bay of Pigs, implying that he had been ensnared by an inherited security establishment. He said he would need three years for people to forget the debacle and credit his peace moves. Alas, he is no Jack Kennedy.

Anyway, I interviewed Olmert for my book in February of 2007. He and his wife Aliza had prepared a lovely breakfast at his residence, and he talked, on the record, for about 45 minutes as he prepared to go off to a reunion of his first-grade class from Binyamina. He was already being investigated, and the Winograd Commission was still deliberating (hence, the little joke about the sudden importance of Prof. Ruth Gavison). But he was still projecting hope for a diplomatic process with the Palestinians. I thought the conversation was unusually interesting, and could get little of it into my book.

It is, in any case, most revealing to hear him unfiltered. Among other things, it may help us understand what he'll be leaving his successor. The entire conversation can be heard here.