Foreign Policy Blogs

Could Ehud Olmert Return to Politics?

The following was taken from Jspace.com.  The article was written by Jspace Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Rob Lattin, who also blogs about Israeli and Middle Eastern foreign policy for Foreign Policy Blogs. 

On Tuesday, for the first time in a while, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was able to take a deep sigh of relief. Olmert was cleared of major corruption charges in both the Rishon Tours affair and the Morris Talansky affair.

A three-justice panel ruled that a state prosecutor had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Olmert knowingly profited from the double billing of trip expenses booked through Israeli travel agency Rishon Tours for fundraising for public institutions. The court also ruled that the state was unable to prove that tens of thousands of dollars in unreported campaign donations to Olmert made by Morris Talansky, a United States businessman, constituted influence peddling.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. (Photo: Google)

Olmert was found guilty of breach of trust over the Investment Center affair, which centered on allegations that he gave illegal favors to his former law partner, Uri Messer, during his time as minister of trade, labor, and industry. However, all things considered, it was a slap on the wrist. He is still facing charges, however, in the Holyland Affair, in which real estate developers allegedly paid tens of millions of shekels to public employees and elected officials to push the Holyland project in Jerusalem. This included shortening planning times, smoothing over planning objections, rezoning land, granting tax breaks and increasing the permitted amount of construction. Whether Olmert will be cleared of these charges is yet to be seen, but his chances appear to have improved drastically.

Given the “successful” outcomes of Olmert’s various predicaments, and the serious possibility of evading blame in the Holyland Affair, many are beginning to ask about his possible return to politics. On Thursday, amid speculation that he might team up with close family friend and new political challenger Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid movement, Olmert said he had no intention of returning to politics, though he stated he would remain a member of the Kadima Party. Lapid also denied any possibility of working politically with Olmert.

So what should one make of all of this? If I were a betting man, I would venture to say that Olmert will return to politics at some point. Here’s why.

First, while Olmert said that he has “no intention of getting into political activity…and do[es] not intend to become involved,” his spokesperson, Jacob Galanti, left a noticeable amount of room for Olmert to renege on his initial statement. Galanti said that Olmert would not consider getting back in to politics until a verdict was reached on the Holyland affair. For anyone that speaks politician, they know this means Olmert is more than weighing the possibility.

Second, while many people won’t argue that Olmert’s character might be a bit suspicious, a lot of people like his views on the Palestinians and Iran. Because of perceived blunders in the 2006 Lebanon War and all of the corruption charges, Olmert has been able to speak candidly, honestly, and without consequence. As a result, his sentiments have sounded realistic and have reverberated with the international community (however, his re-entrance into politics is opposed by most Israeli’s according to a poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 10).

Olmert argues that Israel will have to make the tough choices and sacrifices to make it work with the Palestinians; and that Benjamin Netanyahu is unwilling to do either. His de-politicized conviction is what separates him from people likeTzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz, who at times are clearly full of hot air.

He says Israel can’t have its cake and eat it too when it comes to Iran. “A nation has the right to determine what it should do to defend itself, but when at the same time we ask the United States and other countries to provide us with the means to do it, no one is entirely independent to act, irrespective of the positions and attitudes and policies of other countries,” Olmert said at The Jerusalem Post conference a few months ago. For people who believe an attack on Iran right now is a disastrous choice, and there are many including former Mossad and Shin Bet leaders Meir Dagan and Yuval Diskin, Olmert’s words are music to their ears.

An Olmert return to politics could be seen as good for Israel, depending on who you ask. He himself might also see it as a shot at redemption.

Let’s not romanticize it too much though. Olmert was investigated on major corruption charges and did get convicted of offering up favors to his friends. For voters and taxpayers, this should be more than enough to excommunicate him from the political world (clearly his own shame or dignity won’t be enough).

Also, Olmert’s possible re-entrance represents everything that is wrong with Israel’s political system and would mark an all-time low in sleaziness. The Jewish state is currently being held down by an electoral system that allows for its corrupt and immoral politicians to be recycled. With every politician that gets re-used when he or she doesn’t deserve it, dozens of smart and innovative Israeli young professionals lose hope in getting involved. Israel has lost so much human capital over the years that it has made a global push to get Israelis to return home.

Even with his moderation and honesty, what could Ehud Olmert realistically bring to the table that he didn’t before? Even if in theory people like what he had before, it didn’t work! He fouled up hard in a major war and the Palestinians ended up rejecting him.

Bottom line: there may be appeal for Olmert to come back to politics, and if history is any indication he likely will. But if the Israeli people care about their long-term political future and reputation, they should do everything in their power to prevent it.

 

Author

Rob Lattin
Rob Lattin

Rob Lattin recently completed his Master's in International Affairs at the City College of New York, where he won the Frank Owarish prize for graduating at the top of his class. His thesis explored Democratic Peace Theory and its applicability to small powers, and used the relationship between Turkey and Israel as its case study. Rob received his B.A. in Near Eastern Studies and Political Science, graduating from the University of Arizona with honors.

Rob has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and has lived in Haifa, Israel. In addition to blogging for FPB, he is the Foreign Affairs Correspondent for Jspace.com. He currently splits his time between Washington D.C. and New York City.

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