Exclusive interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Ehud_border_027
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.

________

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.

Les douze piliers d’Israël

DouzePiliersIsrael« Je ne suis ni meilleur ni plus intelligent qu’aucun de vous. Mais je ne me décourage pas et c’est pourquoi le rôle de chef me revient. » – Theodor Herzl

La terre d’Israël m’a toujours captivé. Jeune écolier, l’une de mes professeurs passait son temps à parler de la Palestine, gommant systématiquement le nom d’Israël de son vocabulaire puisque ce pays n’existait pas selon elle. Un certain lundi matin, elle nous demanda, fidèle à son habitude, ce que nous avions fait durant la fin de semaine qui venait de se terminer. Lorsque mon tour arriva, je lui mentionnai que mon père m’avait acheté un Atlas géographique et que cela m’avait permis de découvrir qu’elle nous mentait éhontément puisqu’aucun pays répondant au nom de Palestine figurait sur la carte du monde. Je fus quitte pour une petite visite chez le bureau de la directrice, une vieille religieuse souriante et bien compréhensive qui s’est beaucoup amusée de mon sens de l’argumentation.

Plusieurs années plus tard, il m’a été donné de fouler le sol de ce pays à plusieurs reprises. Je me suis toujours senti choyé de pouvoir visiter le kibboutz de David Ben Gourion à Sdé Boker ou encore le Menachem Begin Heritage Center à Jérusalem. J’aurais tellement aimé aller me recueillir sur la tombe de Theodor Herzl ou Yitzhak Rabin, mais je n’en ai pas eu l’occasion – du moins pas jusqu’à maintenant.

J’étais donc enchanté de parcourir – dévorer serait un qualificatif plus juste – le dernier ouvrage de Georges Ayache, Les douze piliers d’Israël : Theodor Herzl, Haïm Weizmann, David Ben Gourion, Vladimir Jabotinsky, Menahem Begin, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, Isser Harel, Shimon Peres. Ces hommes et cette femme ont non seulement permis l’avènement de ce pays en 1948, mais ils et elle en ont assuré la survie, l’épanouissement au prix de sacrifices exceptionnels – l’un d’entre eux, Yitzhak Rabin, ayant même consenti au sacrifice ultime en 1995 en tombant sous les balles d’un extrémiste alimenté par la droite religieuse.

À plusieurs reprises, Georges Ayache revient sur une qualité ayant habité la plupart d’entre eux, soit le pragmatisme. Pensons notamment à un Begin faisant la paix avec Sadate ou à Sharon qui décrète un retrait israélien unilatéral de la bande Gaza. Ou encore à Shimon Peres revêtant les habits de la colombe après avoir consacré des décennies à construire les forces armées israéliennes.

Il met également en évidence le fait que, dès avant sa naissance, Israël doit composer avec le double-standard réservé à un pays qui « […] avait commis le péché de survivre. » C’est ainsi que, durant le mandat britannique, « peu soucieux d’interrompre les violences perpétrées par les Arabes, ils [les représentants de Sa Gracieuse Majesté] semblaient en revanche obsédés par la recherche d’armes chez les sionistes. » Des années plus tard, après la guerre des Six-Jours, « […] personne, à l’étranger, ne se souciait des violations permanentes du cessez-le-feu par les Égyptiens; en revanche, chacun scrutait à la loupe les réactions israéliennes, qualifiées mécaniquement d’« excessives » ou de « disproportionnées ». Comme quoi rien n’a vraiment changé…

Cela dit, le livre nous permet de constater à quel point l’esprit de plusieurs de ces figures fondatrices était empreint d’une anglophilie surprenante, si l’on prend en considération l’attitude de Londres par rapport au Yishouv. Que ce soit en apprenant que Jabotinsky s’est vu remettre la prestigieuse distinction de Member of the British Empire (MBE) « […] pour services rendus » for king and country, en lisant que Menachem Begin avait offert du thé aux policiers du NKVD venus l’arrêter chez lui à Wilno, en se régalant de lire que Abba Eban était accouru à la librairie Foyle’s sur la rue Charing Cross à Londres (un endroit mythique et légendaire pour tout bon féru de lecture qui se respecte) pour dénicher des livres à propos de l’ONU ou en s’étonnant de découvrir que Ben Gourion « […] préférait les méthodes classiques de l’armée anglaise ». Le britannophile en moi était très heureux de recueillir ces perles déposées à plusieurs endroits entre les couvertures.

Inévitablement, la question se pose à savoir lequel de ces douze piliers retient ma faveur personnelle. Bien que je sois pris d’une affection historique pour plusieurs, pour ne pas dire presque tous, je dirais que Moshe Dayan est celui qui m’a le plus marqué.

Après qu’il eut perdu un œil en Syrie en juin 1941, à la tête d’une compagnie spéciale au service des forces britanniques, « sa mise à l’écart et, surtout, sa nouvelle apparence physique, défigurée par un bandeau noir de pirate lui barrant le visage, le démoralisèrent. » « Sa traversée du désert dura de 1941 à 1948 », mais il persévéra et parvint à surmonter son handicap pour devenir une véritable légende, transformant un point faible en une force redoutable. De quoi faire sourire Sun Tzu.

Au final, les éditions Perrin doivent être remerciées d’avoir publié ce livre, qui fait non seulement partie des meilleurs au sujet de l’histoire d’Israël selon moi, mais qui permet également de mieux comprendre ces onze hommes et cette femme qui ont posé les fondations de l’un des pays les plus fascinants – et résilient – du monde.

Je sais que l’actuel Premier ministre d’Israël ne correspond pas aux critères de Georges Ayache dans le portrait qu’il brosse des 12 piliers, parce qu’il n’est pas associé au moment charnière de 1948 (il est né en octobre 1949), mais je serais quand même curieux de savoir ce que Georges Ayache aurait à dire et écrire au sujet de Benjamin Netanyahou.

______________

Georges Ayache, Les douze piliers d’Israël : Theodor Herzl, Haïm Weizmann, David Ben Gourion, Vladimir Jabotinsky, Mehahem Begin, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, Isser Harel, Shimon Peres, Paris, Perrin, 2019, 429 pages.

Je tiens à exprimer ma plus vive reconnaissance aux représentants de Interforum Canada qui m’ont généreusement offert un exemplaire de ce livre, ainsi qu’aux gens des éditions Perrin pour leur précieuse collaboration. Un blogueur ne pourrait espérer mieux.

Riding with Napoleon

AndrewRobertsLeadership

In April 2013, I made a point to be in London for Lady Thatcher’s funeral, on my way back to Canada from Rome. Throughout my youth, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain had always been one of my favorite leaders. It was therefore an honor to stand on the street and see her casket pass in front of me on a morning of reverence.

Just a few days ago, I finished reading Andrew Robert’s last book, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from those who made history and, to my great delight, the 9th leader about whom he writes is Margaret Thatcher (the preceding 8 are Napoleon Bonaparte, Horatio Nelson, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, George C. Marshall, Charles de Gaulle and Dwight D. Eisenhower). I was pleasantly surprised. After all, if the Iron Lady doesn’t deserve a place in such a book, who does?

Thinking about leaders who left an indelible mark in military leadership makes one wonder how did they get there in history? Andrew Robert answers this question when he writes that: “Except through heredity, one does not become a war leader in the first place unless one has a strong personality.”

While it is easy to think and write about the qualities and strengths of great figures of history, it is no less important and vital to understand that, like us, they are humans. The first challenge they must meet is failure. For the road to success if filled with obstacles, but, as Winston Churchill would say, “sometimes, when she scowls most spitefully, [goddess Fortune] is preparing her most dazzling gifts.” Furthermore, you can’t please everyone. I found it almost unbelievable to read that “Although eight admirals, all of them in tears, carried his [Admiral Nelson’s] coffin, such was his controversial status in the Admiralty because of his ceaseless self-promotion and occasional refusal to obey orders that eighteen other admirals refused to attend.” How can anyone dare refuse attending the victor of Trafalgar’s funeral? Statesmen also need to cope with ungratefulness – like those dealing with Stalin and Charles de Gaulle learnt. Finally, you can’t afford modesty. After all, most of these leaders understood “[…] that if their reputations could help conquer, and thus save the lives of their men, who were they to be modest?” Hence, the myth created by de Gaulle to safeguard France’s self-respect during World War II.

But, more than anything, the leaders perform better when they’re profoundly humane. Those who know me are aware of my deep admiration for Churchill, but my favorite chapter is the one Andrew Roberts wrote about Napoleon. I loved to read about the Emperor’s obsession with his men’s boots (after all, his army covered lots of territory by foot), the fact that “he always made sure that wine from his own table was given to the sentries outside his door”, the fact that Napoleon didn’t hesitate to take his own medal of the Légion d’honneur to present it to a deserving soldier or having the feeling that you are observing the Emperor’s “superb filing system” while riding in his busy carriage moving across Europe on bumpy roads. I never was a big fan of the man derisively called the “God of War” by Clausewitz, but Andrew Roberts deserves the credit for turning the ship of my fascination in his direction.

Tomorrow, January 27th, will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, let me say a few words about Margaret Thatcher again. Before picking up Leadership in War, I was totally unaware of her profound philo-Semitism – a disposition I share with her. It was also fascinating to read that “Churchill […] was theologically a lot closer to Judaism than to the Anglican Church into which he was born.” But I digress. Thatcher learnt from her father “[…] the superiority of decisive practical action over mere hand-wringing and vapid moralizing, of the kind that all too many appeasers – in the 1930s and since – have been guilty.” As the metastases of the antisemitic cancer are spreading throughout the world, men and women of goodwill who seek to fight this disease will have to take inspiration from Margaret Thatcher to wage this vital battle. But that’s another story for another post.

I’m writing it for the first time on this blog, but I have been saying it for years. Few authors compare to Andrew Roberts. He dips his pen in the most eloquent ink to bring to life figures who have heaps of lessons to teach us (sometimes about values not to espouse like in the case of Hitler or Stalin).

If there was one leader about whom I would love to know what Andrew Roberts has to say, it would be Moshe Dayan. He mentions him on a few occasions in the book. Just enough to tease, but who knows? We might see something published about the famous Israeli warlord by the author in the future.

Leadership in War is an essential addition on the bookshelves of any leadership enthusiast, whether in the business world, in politics or in the ranks of the military.

239 pages of exquisite intellectual pleasure.

_____________________________________________

Andrew Roberts, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from those who made history, New York, Viking, 2019, 256 pages.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the fantastic Sharon Gill at Penguin Random House Canada for helping me with a review copy of this excellent book.

Moshe Dayan – the Israeli Iron Man

MosheDayan
Moshe Dayan figurine by King & Country (IDF001) photographed on Professor Mark Raider’s article about the legendary Israeli warlord.

In May 2017, King & Country (the world’s most notorious toy soldier collectibles company) released a new series about the Six-Days War, featuring Moshe Dayan as its first figure (IDF001). From what I heard, this collection has met with lots of interest and success. And I will admit that I started collecting the IDF figurines and the legendary eye-patched General is my favorite, for the good reason that he never left me indifferent and I developed a profound admiration for him.

Back when I visited Israel in 2008, I purchased a poster of the famous picture of Uzi Narkis, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin entering Jerusalem in June 1967. And I hanged it proudly on the wall, in front of my bookshelves.

So what is it with a Canadian guy like me admiring this Israeli icon?

I have to admit that, since I’ve always been a staunch defender and supporter of Israel, I never really questioned myself about the phenomenon.

Up until I saw that Professor Mark A. Raider from the University of Cincinnati had written an article about it, pertinently titled “Moshe Dayan: “Israel’s No. 1 Hero” (in America)”.

And what a great treat it was. Trust me, I’ve read my faire share of boredom-summoning papers since my University days. But Mark Raider’s article is not among that lot.

In a nutshell, the author explains that the reason why Dayan became so popular in the United States is directly related to the fact that “he meshed seamlessly with the American faith in military heroes who became statesmen.” You can think of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Andrew Jackson or – one of my very favorites – Theodore Roosevelt here.

“In short, by the 1970s the cultural myth surrounding Dayan – cultivated by his promoters, embraced by his admirers, and encouraged by Dayan himself – not only conformed to the American hero pattern but became an indelible feature of American popular culture.”

So, that’s how and why Moshe Dayan became a heroic figure like Tony Stark or James Bond – “[…] safeguarding Western values and ideals […]” in my psyche.

I guess you can predict that, in such great company, Moshe Dayan’s fame and resonance as a member of the “[…] pantheon of the West’s outstanding war heroes […]” has a very bright future ahead.

And I truly hope that Professor Raider will decide to write a book on this fascinating subject. Under such an eloquent analytic pen, it would be a bestseller – no doubt about it.

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

IDFTrio
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.

Generals and Prime Ministers in Israel

TroisTenors
Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.

In his seminal book about the history of Israel’s armed forces, Tsahal, military historian Pierre Razoux writes:

“Even though its influence tends to diminish, the army still occupies a central role in Israeli society. To better understand its importance, we must reiterate that more than 10% of the Jewish population either serves in the army or regularly serves in the army reserves, which makes Israel the most militarized country in the Middle East. (my translation)” (p. 8).

For that reason, many important military figures also played a dominant role in public life. The names of Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon are the better known in that category and easily come to mind in any discussion on that topic. All in all, few other countries can count on so many military figures in key civil leadership positions.

Which inevitably brings us to politics. Commenting on the results of the recent legislative elections for the Israeli left, Arik Henig perceptively wrote: “Since the 1977 political upheaval, Labor won the elections only twice, when it was headed by two former IDF chiefs of staff: Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and Ehud Barak in 1999. […] When will [the people of the Labor party] they learn that the Israeli public prefers to be led by chiefs of staff?”

In other words, the Israel left needs a former IDF chief of staff if it wants to expect to return to success on the electoral battlefield.

Many will be tempted to perceive this observation as military fetishism. But it’s not the case. In a post-election analysis, Daniel Kurtzer, an academic who served as US Ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, summarized the three challenges that must be met by the Labor party, if it wants to leave the opposition benches in the near future:

“First, it must persuade Israeli voters, especially those of Russian origin, that it can handle Israel’s security challenges at least as well as, if not better than, the right. (Former military intelligence director Amos Yadlin was recruited by Herzog’s party to be its security face, but his voice was almost inaudible during the campaign.) Second, the left must induce the Sephardim to put past grievances behind and to vote with their pocketbooks. And, third, it must overcome the perception that support for peace with the Palestinians is akin to appeasement and therefore endangers Israel.”

The Prime ministership of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu will not last forever and the opposition will inevitably become tired enough with loosing elections that they will decide to introduce a new figure whose presence, values and positions will fill the gap between the expectations of Israelis and the Labor party.

Much like Catholics like to observe various Cardinals to try to find out who might become the next Pope, anybody who’s minimally interested in Israeli politics and its future would be well-advised to keep an eye in the ranks of former IDF chiefs of staff to spot who might trade the image of the olive green military outfit general for the statesman persona.

Tsahal has always been an integral part of Israel’s history. And it will continue to play a determinant role in its future.