Bay Area friends speak highly of Olmerts ability to lead

When Loren Basch first met Ehud Olmert, they had an immediate disagreement about the state of Israeli politics, which soon blossomed into a loud debate at the Knesset building.

Naturally, they became fast friends.

A quarter of a century later, Basch is the executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, and, unless you’ve consciously ignored all forms of mass communication for the past two weeks or so, you know what Olmert is up to — he’s been Israel’s acting prime minister since Ariel Sharon was felled by a stroke Jan. 4.

Basch’s disagreements with Olmert didn’t cease with their Knesset spat in 1981. But, in a theme independently echoed by several of Olmert’s longtime Bay Area friends contacted by j., Basch said he may question some of Olmert’s actions or positions but has complete confidence that he’s the right man to lead Israel right now.

“This is the one guy at this very unsettling time that I completely trust his judgment and ability to hold down Israel’s position,” he says.

While Olmert was a Likud lifer, he

wasn’t afraid to “lose a lot of friends” pushing disengagement and switching parties.

“He’s very strong, very level-headed. He grew upon the right; his dad is one of the founders of the Irgun and he’s spent his whole career as an insider in Likud. But also, interestingly enough, he’s a guy who at this point certainly was instrumental in the whole Gaza disengagement and the move to the Kadima Party,” Basch says.

That brings up a point Olmert’s local friends don’t quite agree on: Has Israel’s acting prime minister changed his views to suit the times or have the times changed to suit his views?

Basch describes Olmert as “a hardliner, but not hardline Likud.” Rabbi Brian Lurie, however, sees things differently.

Lurie, former longtime executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and onetime head of the United Jewish Appeal, met the “princes” of the Likud Party — Olmert, Dan Meridor, Uzi Landau, Ronnie Milo, Benjamin Netanyahu and others — in 1980.

“Though his politics are a little more right than my politics, in many ways I considered him a centrist even then,” recalls Lurie.

“The only time I really saw him espouse a hard line in recent years is the undivided Jerusalem, which I’m sure he believed in but was also a campaign slogan” during Olmert’s tenure as mayor of that city from 1993-2003.

“Maybe that was true, but that’s what any candidate would say. Even [longtime Labor Mayor] Teddy Kollek said that.”

Tom Dine, former head of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby and now CEO of the S.F.-based JCF credits Olmert with making “twists and turns for good reasons.”

“I would say when he took a left turn, he was the one responsible for the prime minister [Sharon] capturing the sacred middle, if you will. So I tip my hat to Ehud for his role in working closely with Sharon in making the decisions about the disengagement,” says Dine, who also went out of his way to meet all of the “Begin Boys” in the early 1980s.

Lurie, however, doesn’t perceive any left turns from Olmert.

“I don’t think he’s had a change. I really don’t,” he says. “The Ehud I have known for all these years is not a hardliner. He’s a reasonable, intelligent, flexible man. His wife is a liberal. So I never saw him as a hardliner.”

Along with Olmert’s wife, Aliza, many of his close friends lean left. Basch adds that, on his many Bay Area trips, Olmert cemented plenty of local friendships, and “San Francisco in the 1980s was not a bastion of Likud support.”

Olmert’s Bay Area allies point to his flexibility and ability to work across ideological lines when they claim he’s the right man to pull together the Kadima party and move Israel forward.

Recent polls show an Olmert-led Kadima garnering 40 Knesset seats. A Shimon Peres-led party would pull 42 seats in this poll, but Lurie predicted that, with Kadima much more stocked with ex-Likudniks than former Laborites, “it’s going to be Olmert.”

Which brings up another major question: Is Olmert, a career inside politico without Sharon’s larger-than-life persona and military laurels, electable?

Basch, not surprisingly, thinks so. He points out that Olmert is a cagey campaign manager who successfully steered Menachem Begin into Israel’s top spot decades ago.

But Olmert isn’t nearly as popular as Sharon, and Basch readily acknowledges his friend’s sticking points.

“He was a much, much more popular fellow when he was a young guy. On a personal level, I find him to be quite impeccable, but politics is rough stuff and he’s a rough guy who has made a lot of moves people disagree with. Not everybody likes him,” says Basch.

“He’s been indicted a couple of times and cleared and there’s been talk of stretching the fund-raising boundaries, but these were indictments. And you never know about the political nature of indictments. Sadly, in both Israel and America, a lot of what’s happened in politics is people seek to destroy character.”

With that in mind, everyone is bracing for the anticipated showdown between Olmert and Netanyahu, the former prime minister and Likud’s standard-bearer.

It is lost on no one that, if Sharon and his right-hand man Olmert hadn’t established Kadima, it would be Benjamin Netanyahu running Israel today. It is equally open that Olmert and Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu have had a rivalry brewing for nearly three decades.

“Coming back to the ‘boy princes,’ the intensity of the rivalry with Bibi is incredible. Assuming Ehud is leader of the new middle party and assuming he gives it direction in terms of policy, the showdown on March 28 will be a bitter, bitter occasion,” says Dine.

Dine, like Lurie and Basch, is eagerly looking forward to Israel’s Clash of the Princes. While Netanyahu is perhaps Israel’s most well-known politician in America because of his erudite television appearances, Basch notes that Americans shouldn’t underestimate Olmert.

“Ehud probably knows the American Jewish community as well as any Israeli. And he’s not just somebody on the speaker’s circuit. He’s helped us build the American Jewish community, helped us raise money. He’s very at home here traveling around the country, speaking and helping.”

Whether as a caretaker prime minister or the man who moves his country forward, Olmert’s local friends give him nothing short of a ringing endorsement.

“Israel is lucky to have Olmert in this position now. Remember, he came to this when he was 28. He’s been in the Knesset for 32 years, he knows it inside and out. This is not some rube who’s going to get up there and make all the basic mistakes,” says Lurie.

“Olmert has these three months to show what I’m saying about him. Can he produce in that amount of time? Three months doesn’t give you much of a chance. But he could galvanize this Kadima Party, and who knows what will happen in this election? I wouldn’t write him off.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.