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.

Riding with Napoleon

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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.

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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.

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.

Ces Anglais morts pour la France

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Trois figurines (représentant des soldats australiens) de la collection King & Country photographiées devant le livre de Jean-Michel Steg.

Ce matin, les visiteurs qui auront effectué le trajet pour commémorer le 100e anniversaire de la bataille de la Somme entonneront à 7 heures 30 un « God Save the Queen » bien senti et rempli d’émotion en hommage à ces valeureux combattants dont la bravoure a fait en sorte qu’on se souvient maintenant du 1er juillet 1916 comme ayant été le jour le plus meurtrier de l’histoire britannique, ce moment où nous nous remémorons Ces Anglais morts pour la France pour reprendre le titre de l’excellent ouvrage de Jean-Michel Steg publié chez Fayard.

Retraçant les différentes facettes de cette bataille mémorielle, l’auteur nous rappelle les motivations stratégiques des planificateurs de cette intervention qui avait pour objectif d’enlever de la pression sur les Français à Verdun, mais qui se solda par un échec – notamment en raison du fait que les généraux britanniques avaient sous-estimé leurs adversaires, envoyant dans le no man’s land des « […] troupes britanniques [qui] vont devoir affronter des soldats allemands bien entraînés, au moral élevé, et protégé par des défenses denses et efficaces. » Avant de quitter leurs tranchées, les hommes vêtus de kaki étaient voués à être fauchés.

On peut également marcher au combat ces « […] soldats protestants [de la division de l’Ulster] dont certains se sont élancés en portant leur écharpe de l’ordre d’Orange », ces valeureux Terre-neuviens dont 90% des effectifs sont tombés au combat et dont la majorité ont « […] été frappés à découvert avant même d’avoir atteint leurs tranchées de départ » devant Beaumont-Hamel, ces Français qui, en compagnie des Britanniques combattant à leurs côtés, ont effectué une percée malheureusement inexploitée ou encore ces « […] Gordon’s Highlanders, qui ont finalement conquis la première ligne de tranchées allemande le 13 novembre 1916, dans les derniers jours de la bataille de la Somme. »

Au-delà des aspects techniques et propres à la geste militaire, c’est surtout l’épaisseur humaine du sacrifice de ces braves dont Jean-Michel Steg nous fait éloquemment prendre conscience qu’il faut retenir. On peut les compter sur les doigts d’une main, les ouvrages en français relatant les hauts faits d’armes des soldats de Sa Majesté durant la Première Guerre mondiale. Marchant sur les traces de Sir John Keegan et non moins dépourvu de l’insigne talent de cet illustre précurseur, l’auteur a donc le mérite bien senti d’apporter une contribution inestimable dans l’historiographie militaire.

Ce matin, alors que je m’apprête à déployer mon unifolié et célébrer l’anniversaire de mon pays, le Canada, je ne pourrai m’empêcher de penser à ces Terre-neuviens qui ont consenti ces énormes sacrifices qui allaient les amener à rejoindre la confédération canadienne en 1949. Il en est de même de tous ces hommes – catholiques ou anglicans, Irlandais ou Écossais, professionnels des armes ou membres de la « nouvelle armée » de Kitchener, qui ont lancé un assaut impossible mais combien révélateur de cet esprit de sacrifice qui allait mener les Alliés à la victoire en 1918.

Un très bon moment de lecture, en définitive, que je ne saurais assez chaudement recommander à toute personne intéressée par la chose militaire ou l’étendue parfois inexplicable du courage humain.

Ces Anglais morts pour la France de Jean-Michel Steg, un titre qui figure maintenant parmi les meilleurs titres de ma bibliothèque.

Albin Michel connaît mal Winston Churchill

Churchill1936Hier, j’ai eu le plaisir de passer un bon moment dans l’une de mes librairies favorites. Ce sont naturellement les ouvrages consacrés à l’histoire miliaire qui ont retenu mon attention.

Il en fut ainsi de celui de Gilbert Grellet, Un été impardonnable, au sujet de la Guerre d’Espagne paru chez Albin Michel.

Quel ne fut pas mon étonnement, en parcourant la couverture arrière du livre, de constater une erreur aussi grossière qu’incompréhensible de la part d’une maison d’édition de cette importance.

Permettez-moi de citer l’extrait qui m’a fait sursauter:

« Indifférentes à ces crimes de masse, la France de Léon Blum, l’Angleterre de Churchill et l’Amérique de Roosevelt ont refusé d’intervenir pour aider les démocrates espagnols […]. »

Non mais, sérieusement?

Relisez bien le sous-titre de l’ouvrage : « 1936 : la guerre d’Espagne et le scandale de la non-intervention ».

Comment alors peut-on imputer à Churchill – qui arrivera aux affaires le 10 mai 1940, donc près de quatre ans plus tard – la responsabilité de la non-intervention de la Grande-Bretagne dans le conflit espagnol quatre ans plus tôt?

Churchill, rappelons-le, est en pleine traversée du désert dans les années 1930. On ne saurait donc lui imputer une posture, aussi malheureuse soit-elle, des mandarins et décideurs de Westminster. Chose certaine, il n’était certainement pas l’égal d’un Blum ou d’un Roosevelt, lesquels étaient, doit-on le rappeler, aux affaires. Contrairement à Churchill.

C’est Stanley Baldwin qui présidait le gouvernement de Sa Majesté en 1936.

Inutile de mentionner qu’en constatant une telle erreur, j’ai replacé ce livre bien à sa place sur la table. Si une maison d’édition renommée laisse passer une telle erreur sur une couverture arrière, combien d’autres peuvent être embusquées dans les pages du livre?

Bref et pour tout dire et à moins que l’on puisse justifier cette utilisation du nom de Churchill, la connaissance historique des réviseurs d’Albin Michel est carencée. Et c’est franchement désolant.

Un rapide coup d’œil à la biographie de Sir Winston Churchill aurait pourtant permis d’éviter un écueil important.

Plus performants que l’OTAN, les Russes?

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Les membres d’équipage d’un chasseur Su-30 russe s’apprêtent à embarquer dans leur appareil. Source: RT

Selon un rapport classifié de l’OTAN obtenu par certains médias, les responsables de l’OTAN saluent la performance des forces aériennes russes dans le cadre des opérations aériennes effectuées contre Daech en Syrie. Efficacité, professionnalisme, supériorité technologique et renseignements exacts permettent aux Russes de très bien tirer leur épingle du jeu. Au point où leurs 40 appareils effectuent 75 missions sur une période de 24 heures. De leur côté, les 180 appareils de l’OTAN ne parviennent qu’à atteindre 20 cibles par jour, ce qui représente de manière bien évidente une fraction du travail accompli par les Russes.

Voilà une donnée bien intéressante à considérer, lorsque l’on aborde la lutte contre Daech et le travail de Moscou à cet égard.

Enfin… Le Maréchal Juin

J’ai enfin reçu mon exemplaire de la biographie du Maréchal Juin, publiée chez Tallandier. Après une trop longue absence de la blogosphère, je me promets de vous faire part de mes observations au sujet de cette biographie, qui promet d’ailleurs d’être excellente puisque sous la plume de Jean-Christophe Notin.
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