Olmert has my vote, but not my trust

As far as personality goes, Ehud Olmert is not my kind of guy. He comes off like he thinks he’s God’s gift to humanity, riffraff that we are.

I remember several years ago when, as mayor of Jerusalem, he came to see the damage at a local Conservative synagogue that had been firebombed. He didn’t walk through the blackened sanctuary, he sort of sauntered through it in a stately way, his head up in the air. In a very expensive-looking suit and shoes, he was the picture of an aristocrat, of someone who’s always known that he’s entitled to power and all its perks. He didn’t light up one of his big cigars, but he might as well have.

This was before the intifada. In those days, and the days earlier, I couldn’t bear Olmert. In both personality and politics, he was offensive. He seemed the ultimate sleaze, a cynical pol thoroughly mobbed up with every conniving businessman who had a hand in Israeli politics.

As mayor, he sold himself to the capital’s haredis. Worse, he was the government patron of the radical settler movement in East Jerusalem. Worst of all, he was the prime mover behind the Netanyahu government’s crazed decision to open the Western Wall Tunnel in 1996, which ended with 16 Israeli soldiers and about 80 Palestinians dead.

This is a lot to put aside when judging Olmert today, as the acting prime minister who seems very likely to be confirmed for the post in the March 28 election. But political leaders shouldn’t be judged on their personalities, because they’re all full of themselves to a greater or lesser degree.

You have to judge politicians, especially those running for prime minister, without sentiment. And if they’ve changed direction, you have to give more weight to what they’ve done lately than what they did before. Unless the candidate is a truly malevolent character, you have to judge him or her on two things: leadership ability and political direction. And on that basis, I think Olmert is better suited to be prime minister than anybody else around.

My opinion of him began to change during the intifada. As Jerusalem mayor, he did a solid job of bucking up a public that was reeling from the suicide bombs. He didn’t talk empty slogans, he didn’t use bombast; instead he showed empathy for people, and urged them not to heroism or patriotic fervor, but to a kind of head-down, workaday, human-scale resilience.

Maybe more than anything else, that trial by fire prepared Olmert for the emergency role he just assumed.

The other reason why he’s best suited to be prime minister is his political turnaround. As Sharon’s vice premier and closest political ally, it was Olmert who gave the first indication of the disengagement plan in his ground-shaking interview with Yediot Achronot’s Nahum Barnea in December 2003. Without laying out a map, he made it unmistakably clear that he wanted unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank interior, and even from the outlying Arab neighborhoods and villages of Jerusalem. This from the fellow who came up with Benjamin Netanyahu’s 1996 campaign slogan, “Peres will divide Jerusalem.”

Very soon afterward, Sharon unveiled the disengagement plan. All along, it was never easy overcoming the resistance of the settlers and within the Likud. And the most important soldier in the fight, after Sharon himself, was Olmert.

Cliché or not, he really did show vision and courage. He, too, is a transformed politician. This week he didn’t hesitate in saying East Jerusalem Arabs would be free to vote in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. The old Olmert would have called out the border police to stop them.

One more thing to his credit: His worst political enemy is Netanyahu. They can’t stand each other. Enough said.

But one final point: Since 2004, I’ve been writing that Amir Peretz, because of the strength of his leadership for the cause of economic decency — something this country needs desperately — should become prime minister. I changed my mind during the current campaign, and before Sharon had his stroke.

To be Israel’s prime minister, it’s not enough to show the way to raise up the poor. You’ve also got to show the way to fight Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc., and to end the occupation. Peretz has shown only that he doesn’t have a clear way in mind. He gives hardly a clue about how he’d handle the Kassams coming out of Gaza. As for ending the occupation, he promises to sit down with Mahmoud Abbas and reach a final agreement in a year. Hasn’t he noticed that Abbas isn’t exactly running the show over there?

I’d probably feel enthusiastic about Peretz becoming prime minister if this was a country whose overriding problem was poverty, a country not surrounded by enemies — say, like Brazil. But this is not Brazil.

Still, if Kadima goes into the March 28 election with an insurmountable lead over Labor and Likud, and is guaranteed to end up running the government, then I’ll vote for Labor. I want there to be a strong voice for economic change, and on that issue, Peretz is by far the best.

But if it’s a close race, then I’m going to vote for the party that has the best candidate for prime minister. That party is Kadima. Times have changed, dramatically and for the better, and Olmert was out in front when they did.

I believe he’s got further changes along those same lines in mind. I still wouldn’t feel entirely comfortable buying a used car from him, but as prime minister of Israel, I trust him.

Larry Derfner is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, where this column previously appeared.