Exclusive interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

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Ehud Olmert, 12th Prime Minister of Israel (courtesy of the Office of Ehud Olmert)

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.

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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.

The Rehabilitation of Ehud Olmert

ShadowStrikeReading 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.

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Source: https://www.calcalistech.com/ctech/articles/0,7340,L-3759710,00.html

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.

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Yaakov Katz, Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2019, 320 pages.

How King Bibi Conquered the Throne

CoverBibi2In May 2007, I had the privilege of meeting with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then leader of the opposition in the Knesset.

During the conversation, I mentioned to the soon-to-be longest serving Prime Minister of Israel that I had recently penned an op-ed comparing him with his hero Winston Churchill and predicting his return to power eventually.

“Keep that article preciously, because I will indeed come back and I will prove you right”, he said with his legendary deep voice.

2 years later he was back at the helm of the country.

Three days ago, on April 9th, “Bibi” contradicted those who were already drafting his political necrology by winning a fifth term.

I was personally not surprised at all with this result and, in all honesty, I was happy with the outcome because I always admired the statesman who is now called “King Bibi” by many commentators.

I followed every campaign led by Benjamin Netanyahu (since 1996) with tremendous interest and the last one was no exception. And the best companion during the last couple of weeks was the excellent biography Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu by Anshel Pfeffer.

Through this real page-turner, Pfeffer offers the key to understand Netanyahu.

In a nutshell, the leader of the Likud comes from a family of political outsider, people who were outsiders not only in the Revisionist family (you can call them the conservatives), but also in Israeli political life in general. Benjamin Netanyahu’s greatest achievement was to have “[…] transformed his father’s ideology into political capital.”

Throughout the years, the young Netanyahu spared no effort to master the art of public relations, networking and political maneuvering to reach the top of the greasy pole. And the ride was everything but smooth, if only because he had to confront and vanquish those we call “the princes” – the sons of the Herut-Likud establishment, of which Netanyahu was never a part. Their importance on the political chessboard was such that Anshel Pfeffer refers to them frequently in his book. But that does not change that fact that, even if Ehud Olmert, Dan Meridor, Ronny Milo, Benny Begin and even Tzipi Livni were all once key figures in Israeli politics, they’re now a footnote in history. Netanyahu outsmarted them all and his name can still be read in the headlines.

Right from the start, Bibi learnt to swim against the current and how to rebel against authority. From his “defiant opposition” to his father – with whom he had a particular relationship and who was against his decision to do his military service – to being yelled at on the phone by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and navigating in the cut-throat and unpredictable environment of the Likud, where today’s friend is tomorrow’s nemesis, Netanyahu conquered the iron throne of Israeli politics and cut himself a place as a dominant figure on the world’s scene, from the Halls of the Kremlin to the Oval Office passing by an official visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

I’m realistic enough to know that Bibi’s reign will come to an end one day – even though I will be among those who will be sorry to see him go. No one, after all, is immortal. But if one has to learn only one lesson from last Tuesday’s election, it is that “King Bibi” does not intend to let any prince touch his crown.

Long after the famous HBO legendary series will have ended, the game of thrones of Israeli politics will continue. It will be fascinating to observe and I’m sure we’re in for many surprises.

________________

Anshel Pfeffer, Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, Toronto, Signal, 2018, 432 pages.

Why the IDF prevails

MosheDayanQuoteMy understanding of history and my numerous visits in Israel nourished my conviction that – confronted with continuous and lethal threats since its rebirth in 1948 – this country would not have survived without the capacities of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

A recent article by Raphael D. Marcus in the Journal of Strategic Studies has brought yet another proof to support this assertion.

In July 2014, Israel was forced to launch Operation “Protective Edge” to counter Hamas murderous attacks on Israel from Gaza. Along the way, IDF would have to turn on a dime, since “[…] Hamas had developed an extensive network of tunnels, with some designed to infiltrate large numbers of fighters into Israel to kill or kidnap soldiers and civilians.”

If it was to be victorious, IDF needed to cope with the new reality. And, based on a “[…] leadership style that is open and dynamic [and] which improves its ability to learn and adapt” – in the pure German military tradition of Auftragstaktik – it did just that, relying on the autonomy, creativity and audacity of its human capital – its boots on the ground.

The Yahalom Unit (the main unit with expertise in underground warfare) was therefore tasked with the development of the operational response to Hamas tunnel warfare and to share its expertise with other units on the ground. The forces active on the theater of operations could then implement the lessons learnt and improvise the actions to be taken to destroy the tunnels and neutralize the enemy.

At the end of the day, the unconventional mindset of the IDF was the best asset to prevail over an irregular enemy that will never stop seeking to hurt Israel. In the words of a former Bridage Commander involved in the 2014 war: “Surprises are part of war. The question is who recovers first.”

I just loved every page of that excellent article, which I recommend to anyone interested in learning how the best military minds craft victories.

Commemorating the Victory of 1967

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King and Country figurines IDF006 (Radio Operator), IDF001 (General Moshe Dayan) and IDF004 (Officer w/UZI) pictured on a flag of Israel.

Some time ago, I was thrilled to learn that King and Country was about to release the very first IDF (Israel Defense Forces) figurines of its fantastic collection, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War in June 1967.

To quote from the text accompanying this collection:

“This dramatic new postwar military series of figures and fighting vehicles will tell, in miniature, just why Israel had to do what it did and how with a relatively small regular and part-time army it fought and defeated some of its most numerous, best equipped and belligerent neighbors.”

That says it all and I’m very happy that King & Country has decided to honour the sacrifice of these men and women at a time of great peril for their homeland – the State of Israel.

At the same time, we have to be lucid enough to recognize all the courage it took for this company to make such a bold decision and go forward. In a world where Israel’s enemies are always prone to deny it any quality and even its basic right to exist, it’s imperative to salute those who are not afraid to row against the current. The brave men and women who serve Israel in its armed forces deserve it. Fully.

Who was responsible for the Kippur War?

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Ariel Sharon (in the middle) and Moshe Dayan (on the right) during the Kippur War.

I have always been interested in the origins, the conduct and the military actors who participated in the 1973 Kippur War, which was launched against Israel by Egypt and Syria.

I was therefore very pleased to find this recent article written by David Tal and published in the pages of Middle Eastern Studies recently.

According to Professor Tal, the responsibility of the Kippur War lies at Egyptian president Anwar Sadat doorstep.

Contrary to the school of thought supporting the assumption that “[…] the 1973 October war could have been avoided if Israel had responded positively to Sadat’s peace offers during 1971-1973”, David Tal goes in detail to demonstrate that Egypt did everything to arrive at a settlement through the battlefield, advancing proposals that were unacceptable to Israel and refusing to move an inch on its demands.

But why was that?

“[…] Sadat was offended by the Egyptian military defeat in 1967”, Egypt’s pride was damaged by this outcome and the only way to repair the situation would be either through “[…] regaining the territories without having to negotiate with Israel, or by going to war.”

Sadat’s war aims were nevertheless very modest. A symbolic gain of territory would permit Egypt to proclaim a victory and wash its humiliation.

Everyone knows that Israel won the war, but less known is the fact that the terms accepted by Sadat within the Camp David Agreement framework were those espoused by Israel before the October war and rejected by the Egyptian president.

This war of choice solely happened for Sadat to claim a symbolic victory allowing him to don the mantle of peacemaker few years later.

For anyone interested in the contemporary history of the Middle East and Israel, David Tal’s work is great food for thought.

David Ben-Gurion and the rebirth of Israel

In the Gregorian calendar, which we Catholics use, May 14th marks the anniversary of the rebirth of Israel. On that day, in 1948, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel at Dizengoff House (now known as Independence Hall) on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv.

Few years ago, I had the privilege of visiting this historical building. For any friend and supporter of Israel, this is a very humbling and profound experience. Mostly when you understand that, from there, Israel directly went to war against the Arab armies to guarantee its very survival.

Whatever your political inclinations (he was a left-winger and I’m a conservative), you can’t be indifferent to that giant of history. Ben-Gurion certainly was not the only one who contributed to the rebirth of Israel. But he was the man who paved the way to Independence Hall.