Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke in New York yesterday at a conference organized by the Jerusalem Post. In his speech, Olmert attacked the policies of his successor Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, defended President Obama against criticism and also called for dividing Jerusalem, which he once served as mayor. According to the New York Times, this is yet another blow to Netanyahu, coming as it did after similar statements from disgruntled former security officials who also trashed Israel’s current government. The Times devoted a fair amount of space to the story this morning and even speculated that Olmert’s remarks “reflected domestic political calculations of his own.”
But the idea that Olmert’s criticism means much in Israel is farcical. As the Times noted in a sentence tucked away in the middle of the story, Olmert is under indictment for corruption charges and faces prison if convicted. What they left out is that he left office in 2009 without even attempting to run for re-election not just because of his legal problems but because he was widely perceived as perhaps the most incompetent and unpopular prime minister in the country’s history. At a time when Netanyahu is riding high in the polls at home and considering moving up elections to strengthen his already tight grip on power for another four years, Olmert is a political pariah with no influence, no following and no future in public life. The only place he can get a hearing these days is in the United States where left-wing audiences enjoy his carping about those who do enjoy the confidence of the Israeli public who rejected him. The general lack of interest in this story on the part of the Israeli press confirms this.
As it happens, Olmert was heckled and booed yesterday by some in his audience. Uncivil behavior like that is unfortunate, and Olmert was right to chide those Americans who did so for trying to be more Israeli than the Israelis. But it should also be pointed out that Olmert, a former member of the Likud, spent decades making a good living (if the corruption charges against him are proven to be true) pandering to such audiences of American Jews and encouraging them to be as fervent as possible in their backing for Likud’s stands on settlements, a united Jerusalem and peace negotiations, so it’s more than a bit hypocritical for him to now tell them to shut up.
As for the some of the substance of his remarks, Olmert contradicted himself about the peace plan he offered to the Palestinians in 2008. He claimed Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas did not say “no” to the plan, saying that others in his government told him not to accept. But then he went on to say that the “Palestinians are guilty.” He went on to explain that, “They should have answered my plan, and they should have answered Barak’s plan” referring to the similarly generous peace offers made in 2000 and 2001 that would have given the Palestinians an independent state in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank and a share in Jerusalem. But because there is no difference between a “no” and simply walking away from the negotiations without an answer, this is a distinction without a difference.
Later in an interview with the Times, he also made the following astonishing statement in connection with Israel’s efforts to bring attention to the nuclear threat from Iran:
“America is not a client state of Israel — maybe the opposite is true,” he said. “Why should we want America to be put in a situation where whatever they do will be interpreted as if they obeyed orders from Jerusalem?”
Now when a former prime minister of Israel suggests his country is a “client state” of the United States and seeks to undermine the efforts of those who have pushed for a tougher stance on Iran, that is curious. Conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites are likely to validate Olmert’s concerns, but since when does an Israeli leader seek to make policy based on such considerations? But then perhaps that’s the point. Olmert isn’t an Israeli leader in any real sense anymore, and it’s ridiculous for the Times or anyone else to treat him as if he were.