ExIsraeli PM stops in S.F. in image-repair mode

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives.” How about Israeli lives?

Ehud Olmert, Israel’s scandal-plagued former prime minister, was on the reputation rehab trail recently, touring the United States and speaking out on Middle East politics and policy.

He reportedly was going to make an announcement this week about whether or not he would run in Israel’s upcoming election; however, with the escalation in Gaza, he decided to postpone any such announcement.

His U.S. tour brought him to the Bay Area, where he spoke to select groups at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies on Nov. 8. After the morning talk in San Francisco, Olmert took a few minutes to talk one-on-one with j.

Ehud Olmert

With the U.S. election still reverberating, Olmert had much to say on the subject, having experienced his first election day in this country while in New York on Nov. 6.

“Either of the candidates would have been easily considered a friend of Israel,” Olmert told j. “Barack Obama is a friend of Israel. He has proved it over the last four years, and he will continue to be a friend of Israel in his second term.”

Though he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were once Likud Party allies, Olmert is now a harsh critic, calling Likud “an extreme right-wing party.” Olmert is a Kadima Party member.

A day after the San Francisco visit, the Jerusalem Post reported that Olmert told people here that he may be returning to politics, quoting him as saying, “I will be very active in changing the current Israeli government.”

In the interview with j., he remained coy. “There are all kinds of rumors as to my personal plans in politics,” he said. “I’m sure that the curiosity will be answered soon by a clear statement I will make. I’m happy that I hear from many people in Israel that they are anxious that I come back and try to take over as prime minister of Israel. That doesn’t mean that is something I’m going to do, but the fact that I am under this pressure from so many people is certainly a drop of encouragement.”

Olmert served as Israel’s prime minister from 2006 to 2009, inheriting the post after Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke. Hallmarks of his tenure include the 2007 Annapolis peace talks, at which he offered the Palestinians a broad peace deal, and Operation Cast Lead, the three-week incursion into Gaza launched in December 2008 in response to Hamas rocket fire.

In July 2008, Olmert announced that he would step down as party leader and not seek re-election in 2009 — largely due to a cascade of legal troubles, including charges of corruption and accepting bribes, during his terms on the national level and as mayor of Jerusalem. Eventually he was exonerated of two charges and convicted of a third, with a fourth charge still pending.

Those difficulties haven’t stopped him from weighing in on hot-button issues facing Israel. As for peace talks with the Palestinians, he once said failure to cement a deal could spell the end of Israel as a democratic Jewish state.

That was five years ago, and there’s still no peace.

“Israel primarily as a Jewish state [is] the raison d’etre, the essence, the basis of Israel’s existence for us,” he said. “There is a likelihood that in a few years the Palestinians would become a majority. Together with the 1.2 million Arabs living in Israel already, they would change the nature of Israel from what it is to something else.”

He said he is saddened that the policy of the current Israeli government “was not focused on making peace with the Palestinians. This was a terrible mistake of historical proportions.”

At the same time, he said he does not relieve the Palestinians of their responsibility for the stalemate.

“I offered [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas a peace plan everyone thought was the maximum Israel could offer,” Olmert continued. “He never said yes to this. At the same time, he never said no. It was incumbent upon the government that took over after I left to make an effort to complete this process and make peace with the Palestinians.”

As for Iran’s nuclear threat, he spoke out strongly against Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while in office, refusing then to rule out military action. Earlier this year, Olmert opposed a unilateral Israeli strike, though he still views Iran as a dire threat.

“Considering the fundamentalist, extremist nature of the government in Iran, there’s a good reason to be concerned,” he said. “The question is not whether Iran should be stopped, but how it should be stopped. I’m very much against an operation by Israel as if we are the only country that should be concerned about Iran, and the one that should take upon itself the whole responsibility.”

He agrees that international sanctions against Iran have been “very effective. There should be more [and] they should last longer.”

As for Obama’s re-election, Olmert said he has no worries about bilateral relations between the United States and Israel, although he did fret over the reportedly frosty personal relationship between the nations’ two leaders.

“[Netanyahu] was seen — from things done and words said — that he preferred Mitt Romney over Barack Obama,” Olmert said. “There will be no impact on relations, but the personal contact between the president and the prime minister may be somewhat affected, and this is regrettable.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.