Last year, I had the tremendous privilege of obtaining an exclusive interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Despite a busy schedule, he accepted in the last couple of days to answer a few questions about the designation of Naftali Bennett as 13th Prime Minister of the country. I always appreciate his straightforward style.
Here is therefore the content of our exchange.
Mr. Olmert, what are your personal impressions of Prime Minister Bennett? Do you know him personally and what are your first impressions upon his designation?
I am very happy that Naftali Bennett was sworn in as Prime Minister. I know him, of course, and I think that he is a worthy person. Obviously, he doesn’t have a longtime experience considering his short time in national politics. But how experienced was President Obama when he was elected President?
In light of yesterday’s historic elections in Israel and the resounding victory of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a fourth consecutive term (his fifth) at the helm of the government, I find it pertinent to post here the content of an op-ed I have penned, 14 years ago this month, about this legendary statesman. Many people were then very skeptical about my prediction. But history and the leader of the Likud have proven me right.
Netanyahu is not finished by Marc Nadeau
(originally published in the Record (Sherbrooke), Friday. March 31st, 2006, p. 7)
Conventional wisdom suggests that Benjamin Netanyahu was the great loser of this week’s election in Israel. Finishing fifth, the Likud Party he has led since Ariel Sharon departed to create Kadima sustained its worst defeat since its creation in 1973.
Even before voters went to the polls, pundits and observers predicted that Netanyahu would be challenged for the leadership of his own party.
The Likud finished not only behind the ruling Kadima and the Labor Party, but was also eclipsed by the Shas, a party popular among Orthodox Jews and Beiteinu, an outfit that draws most of its support from Russian-born immigrants.
Consequently, some say that the traditional voice of conservatism in Israeli public life may has lost its pertinence. For many reasons, it’s far too soon to conclude that.
If he decides to stay on, the man who led his country as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 is not finished.
In the past, Netanyahu has shown a legendary resilience. He not only came back from oblivion after his defeat in 1999, becoming minister of foreign affairs and minister of finance, but when Sharon left the Likud last November, it fell to him to pick up the shattered pieces of a party that lost an important number of members.
The result of this week’s election was not a personal defeat, but rather a testimony that Israeli politics have dramatically changed in the past few months. Thus, he should not shoulder the exclusive blame for Tuesday’s electoral outcome.
Analyzing the results further, one can also note that the Likud’s agenda did not spur popular passion this time.
About security issues – Netanyahu’s forte – the former Prime Minister was hardly a match for another leader – new Prime Minister Edud Olmert – who promoted the exchange of territory for peace. The withdrawal plan for the West Bank comes when many are tired with the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.
From now on the new Prime Minister will have to deliver on this plan. The road may bring numerous pitfalls.
First, Olmert is ready to unilaterally implement a plan which would give a group that promotes terrorism and refuses to recognize the existence of Israel – Hamas – the opportunity to govern a new Palestinian state.
Second, Israelis have not directly encountered terrorism for some time. But if a resurgence of violence was to directly affect Israel again in the future, the Prime Minister may find it difficult to promote concessions toward Israel’s tormentors.
Such a context, along with the failure of the upcoming government in its general policies may well pave the way for a Netanyahu comeback.
Last but not least, contemporary Israel history teaches its observers that it is sometimes premature to write up a political obituary.
Following his 1977 retirement from politics, who could have predicted that Itzhak Rabin would orchestrate the victory of the Labor party in 1992? In the aftermath of the controversy of his involvement in the Lebanese war, Sharon’s career seemed to have come to an end. He came back and left his imprint of Israeli politics, notably by becoming Prime Minister in 2001.
These are two eloquent illustrations that public figures may have a long life in the land of the prophets. After all wasn’t it Menachem Begin – another famous figure from the Likud – who was asked to form a government after 29 years in the opposition?
In politics, anything can happen. Netanyahu could decide to retire and attend to other challenges. He may alternatively be defeated in his bid to retain the leadership of his party. But if he decides to stay in the arena, he still has many good cards in his hand.
It may thus be too soon to confine him to the pages of history. Already, Netanyahu “shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat”, to borrow an expression from former US President Theodore Roosevelt.
After reading the excellent book Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power (St. Martin’s) by Yaakov Kaatz, I was struck about the inestimable contribution of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to public life and international affairs. I therefore thought it might be an excellent idea to conduct an interview with this fascinating character. Mr. Olmert immediately agreed and you will discover a man who’s an avid reader nourishing a serious interest in US political history. Here’s the content of our exchange.
It is my opinion that you have been underestimated as Prime Minister. What accomplishment(s) are you the proudest of and why?
It seems to me that lately, the attitude to me as a former Prime Minister is different than it appeared to be when I left my position. Perhaps, in large part, because time has passed, and people can compare my activities as Prime Minister with the one who came after me. Many may think that my activity has been by far better than the impression they once had.
Many may think that my activity has been by far better than the impression they once had.
The actions I am most proud of in the field of welfare. The fact that I brought about the rehabilitation of hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors who for various reasons over many years the Israeli government ignored its duty to look after their needs. The Israeli government during my time invested billions of shekels for this important cause.
In the field of education, I was involved, as Prime Minister, in reforming Israel’s education system, along with the then Minister of Education, Professor Yuli Tamir. We instituted a far-reaching reform called “New Horizon” which entailed adding billions of shekels to the Education Ministry’s budget.
In the security field, I am proud of the achievements of the Second Lebanon War, which have resulted in a complete calm for over the past 13 years on the northern border. Kiryat Shmona has lived for decades under a constant threat of terrorist attacks and artillery fire no more. I am proud of my decision to destroy of the nuclear reactor in Syria, which posed a real danger to the State of Israel. I am also proud of the peace negotiations that I made with the Palestinian Authority and that were closer than any negotiations we have ever had to a permanent peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinian people.
I am also proud of the peace negotiations that I made with the Palestinian Authority and that were closer than any negotiations we have ever had to a permanent peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinian people.
Who’s the historical figure / leader that inspires you the most?
Many characters have influenced my worldview and have been an inspiration, it is hard to think about one person.
Churchill – Who didn’t grow up to admire him?!
Roosevelt – the man who rescued the US from economic immersion and brought America to save the entire world from the Nazis in Europe and Japanese fascists in the Far East.
The man I remember in international politics with great longing is Bobby Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy was a man with a huge heart, with a great sensitivity to the distressed populations who demanded someone to care about them. African Americans, Hispanics, Mexicans, Native Americans and many others, there was no one to care for them like him. I remember how much it hurt when he was murdered.
Bobby Kennedy was a man with a huge heart, with a great sensitivity to the distressed populations who demanded someone to care about them.
In Israel, two characters have always been my inspiration. Menachem Begin, who was the first Prime Minister of the National Camp and whom I was privileged to work with and for him as a Knesset member in the Likud. And Moshe Dayan who was a brave soldier and statesman who saw far more with one eye than many saw with two eyes. He was a poet and writer and archaeologist and a brilliant military leader. A man who did not like people’s company but accorded me many hours of private conversations at the beginning of my career whose tastes have not disappeared to this day.
You have been through very difficult periods in your life (Mr. Olmert spent 16 months in prison in 2016-2017 in relation with a real-estate project). I could only imagine how hard it must have been on you and the members of your family. What gave you strength to surmount it?
What helped me deal with the difficulties I encountered was on top of the love of my family – my wife, my children and my grandchildren, also the knowledge that I had never done anything that justified my indictment. The sense of justice gives a lot of power.
What helped me deal with the difficulties I encountered was on top of the love of my family.
I know your wife is a very talented artist. I once saw one of her paintings at the office of what was then called the Canada-Israel Committee (now CIJA) in Jerusalem. It goes without saying that intellectual life must be important in your family. Are you an avid reader and what do you like to read?
My wife is a very talented painter and I am very happy that her paintings are in both the office and the home we share and are exhibited in many places in Israel and abroad.
I read many books, my tastes are very eclectic. I read fiction, thrillers, biographies of political people. I read all of Robert Caro’s books in the past year about former President Lyndon B. Johnson. I read the biography of General MacArthur by William Manchester. I have read John Steinbeck’s books – East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath and I now read William Faulkner’s The sound and the Fury and many other books.
I read all of Robert Caro’s books in the past year about former President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Are you a fan of James Bond and books about special / secret operations? (that question came from reading the following in Shadow Strike: “During his term as prime minister, Olmert made a point of knowing every detail and approving every single Mossad operation that took place outside Israel’s borders.” (p. 46) Okay, okay, I should have known that Israeli Security Services undeniably can match any James Bond movie.)
I’m not a big fan of James Bond movies, I know a lot more fascinating realities than these movies but as an entertainment I sometimes watch them.
What do you appreciate the most about your new life?
I enjoy my life with my extended and beautiful family. I enjoy my business activities and especially the world of innovation and technology in which I invest money from a venture capital fund I run.
Do you miss political life?
I never liked political activity. I liked being in positions where I could make decisions on national affairs and I miss that. If I could, I would continue my work to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I believe that the Trump Peace Plan is not good enough and lacks many elements to be balanced, but even though, it has the basis that can prompt renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which is what I recommended to Abu Mazen to do.
The Trump Peace Plan is not good enough and lacks many elements to be balanced, but even though, it has the basis that can prompt renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
What do you think of the fact that Israelis have to return to the polls for the third time in about 6 months?
I think it is a pity that there will be a third round of elections in less than a year in Israel, but I believe that following the upcoming elections, the government will change and the political atmosphere in Israel will change as well as the nature of public discourse can be changed and the atmosphere will be more tolerant and more relaxed in Israeli politics.
I believe […] will change and the political atmosphere in Israel will change as well as the nature of public discourse can be changed and the atmosphere will be more tolerant and more relaxed in Israeli politics.
How do you feel generally about your country?
The State of Israel is a very successful state, there is none like it and will never be, and I am proud to be its citizen and its former Prime Minister.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to former Prime Minister Olmert for the generosity of his time. I surely hope his memoirs, which have already been published in Hebrew, will be available in English at some point in the future.
Reading Yaakov Katz’s book Shadow Strike, one literally feels in the midst of security briefings or witnessing military preparations. The political and military climates detailed are just surreal, as the main character walks a treacherous tightrope. I once was told that a good author can describe a situation or person in a convincing manner, but an excellent one will sweep you up in the action, making you feel as if you were there. In the case of Shadow Strike, I was so engrossed by the story that it was almost impossible for me to put the book down, so anxious was I to know how it would unfold.
Sandwiched between two larger-than-life figures – Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu – the career of Israel’s 12th Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, would seem to many observers as a footnote in Israel’s political history. Yet, Olmert took a fateful decision in September 2007. A decision shrouded in secrecy, to preserve the security and survival of his country. The genesis and evolution of this decision is masterly explained by the author, who is also the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, in this gripping book.
After learning from the Mossad of the existence of a nuclear reactor in Bashar al Assad’s backyard, the Prime Minister took the decision to take it out before it could prove harmful to his fellow citizens. To this day, too few people realize and understand that Israel cannot gamble with its security.
Along the way, he could not afford the diplomatic option favored by the Bush administration. He also had to cope with the opposition and difficult temper of his own Defense Minister, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Every step of the way, secrecy was of the utmost importance in order to ensure the mission’s successful completion but also not to provoke the retaliation of the Assad régime. From the get-go, Olmert was ready to soldier on, showing that his political spine was made of steel.
The fact that Ehud Olmert carried the day against all odds is a powerful testament to the fact that his mandate has not only been successful, even though it will definitely have been marked by humility. He might not have the persona of those tenacious fighters who, like Ariel Sharon, protected Israel in the unit 101 and 202 in the early years of the State, nor the unique eloquence and intellect of Benjamin Netanyahu, but Ehud Omert did what he had to do during these fateful days of 2007. He safeguarded Israel and its future at a very crucial moment.
If only for that, I’m thankful for Yaakov Katz not only because he is one of the most gifted writers I have had the pleasure to read, but also for convincing me that this man has been an underestimated statesman. It’s about time we express some sort of heartfelt gratitude – no matter the fallout of his premiership.
Personally, I hope I will someday have the opportunity and pleasure of telling him in person.
P.S. I’d like to express special thanks to Mr. Joseph Rinaldi, from St. Martin’s Press, for his precious assistance, which proved very helpful in the preparation of this review.
Yaakov Katz, Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2019, 320 pages.