Israel's Unlikely Transformer

(Eyal Warshavsky - Baubau)
By David Makovsky
Sunday, April 2, 2006

I sat alone with Ehud Olmert. It was Sept. 20, 2003, and he was despondent over the progress of peace talks with the Palestinians. Just two weeks earlier, the main hope for moderation on the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas, had resigned as prime minister. And now Olmert was telling me the previously unthinkable: Israel might have to move unilaterally out of parts of the West Bank and Gaza if negotiations with the Palestinians continued to fail.

"Israel cannot wait forever," he confided as we sat together in a quiet alcove at a Northern Virginia conference center. "It has to move if there is no chance for negotiations."

Olmert, then deputy prime minister of Israel, asked me to refrain from writing about our conversation until he had gone public himself. I understood why. His words marked a radical ideological change with profound political implications. For years, the Israeli right had refused even to consider yielding territory on the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's infuriating positions and the violence raging since 2000 had all but ensured Israel would not budge. Now, the nation's second most powerful politician was telling me that Israel could no longer be held hostage by the irresponsibility of the other side.

Last week, Olmert took the final steps in the evolution he had first hinted to me a few years ago. His Kadima party won Israel's parliamentary elections on a platform that included pulling settlements out of most of the West Bank. For a man who came of age in right-wing youth activism and earned his political stripes as the public voice of the "complete land of Israel" movement, his ascent to prime minister caps a remarkable political transformation.

I have witnessed this transformation up close, through encounters with Olmert over nearly two decades of reporting on a life brimming with personal and political contradictions. From a young confidant of Israel's conservative Likud leaders in the 1980s to the hawkish mayor of Jerusalem in the 1990s to the father of peace-activist children, Olmert has traveled significant ideological terrain. In many ways, Israeli society has traveled that road with him.

Much is riding on this journey. For the first 29 years of Israel's existence, the founding Labor Party dominated national politics. When Labor faltered following the traumatic 1973 war, Likud took over for most of the next 29 years. Last fall, former prime minister Ariel Sharon split Likud, upset that the party did not support him in the landmark Gaza pullout. Last week's election marked the first time that a third party -- Kadima, which Sharon founded about a month before suffering a stroke last January -- has won an Israeli election.

Settlements and occupation have not yielded peace with the Palestinians, and bilateral negotiations are remote now that Hamas--a movement sworn to Israel's destruction--is in power. Instead, Olmert campaigned on the promise of a new centrism, stressing the need to leave most of the West Bank and even parts of Jerusalem if there is no negotiating option that could yield final borders. He faces enormous challenges, ranging from the thousands of settlers furious about being evacuated from lands they consider Jewish biblical patrimony to the security nightmares posed by Hamas and like-minded groups. Olmert's political future -- and perhaps the future of his nation -- rides on that promise.

My first memorable conversation with Olmert was in 1990, when he was a government minister and I was the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. I asked him how Likud would respond to Secretary of State James Baker's ideas for moving the peace process forward. An Israeli unity government involving Labor and Likud had already collapsed over this issue. Olmert made clear to me that the new Likud government would not go forward with the peace process. He took out a piece of paper, refilled his ink pen cartridge, put aside his signature cigar, and sketched out why the ideas for a peace process would not pass muster with the Israeli coalition. I left our meeting convinced that Israeli politics trumped all for Olmert. Indeed, over time, he would become one of Israel's most skillful political practitioners.

My second memorable encounter with Olmert took place after the famous 1993 Oslo signing ceremony on the White House lawn, where an angst-ridden Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with Arafat. Members of Likud were in mourning, and Olmert joined his party in voting against the accord in the Knesset.

Yet, when I spoke with him alone shortly thereafter, he confided that "you can agree or disagree with Rabin and [then-Foreign Minister Shimon] Peres, but you have to admit they have demonstrated enormous courage." This was a rare compliment across Israel's highly charged ideological aisle. It confirmed my earlier impression -- Olmert as a human calculator of political risk -- but also revealed that he valued those who defied politics for their beliefs.

By then, Olmert had become mayor of Jerusalem, a job he held for the rest of the 1990s. As mayor, Olmert twice inflamed tensions with moves cheered on by his hawkish backers. First, Olmert urged then-Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to open an underground tunnel in Jerusalem's Old City, close to the sacred Temple Mount (though not underneath it as Arafat notoriously claimed). Riots ensued, leaving 15 Israelis and 70 Palestinians dead. And after the 1997 Hebron accord under which the Israeli military would exit much of the city, Olmert insisted that Netanyahu open up a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

As mayor, however, Olmert often appeared on the scenes of blown-up buses and markets, witnessing the pain of victims and consoling their families. Such experiences likely helped moderate his views. A famously non-religious man in an intensely religious city -- for instance, he was well-known for attending weekly soccer matches on the Sabbath -- Olmert often stood a few steps removed from the religious leaders citing biblical imperatives to reclaim ancestral lands.

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