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 Monday, July 17, 2006

Israel's Regional War: Why Ehud Olmert Showed His Big Fists At His Arab Neighbors

  Read here full article in Times OnLine (UK)

Neighbours are more likely to exchange blows than gossip over the garden fence, according to a new survey.

The phenomenon, known in Britain as “garden rage”, has taken a more extreme form in the Middle East.

Three months ago a new occupant, Ehud Olmert, moved into the official home of Israel’s prime minister promising to be a model resident who would bring peace to a rowdy area. Instead, rockets, shells and air strikes rain down on surrounding back yards.

The rise of Israel’s 61-year-old leader has been meteoric.

An uncharismatic technocrat thrust to prominence after Ariel Sharon’s stroke in January, Olmert went on to win the general election with a plan to withdraw unilaterally from parts of the West Bank and usher in regional security.

His honeymoon ended when a young Israeli soldier was captured by Palestinian militants three weeks ago.

Rather than planning for peace, Olmert is waging war on two fronts, in Gaza and Lebanon, in an effort to bring Israel’s enemies to their knees.

The West has looked on in dismay as the stakes ratchet up and hostilities take on a momentum of their own.

In a land of generals-turned-politicians, one explanation is that Olmert is over- compensating for his lack of military experience and trying to prove his credentials.

He may NOT have the medals of former prime ministers such as Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Sharon — the last of Israel’s warrior leaders — but he is not alone.

Amir Peretz, his defence minister, and Tzipi Livni, his foreign minister, have NONE either.

Clearly, if Olmert and Peretz do not come out looking strong, their tenure is going to be short,” said Gerald Steinberg of Bar-llan University.

A senior Israeli journalist, otherwise critical of Olmert, disagreed: “His actions are not because he has to prove himself. He is just taking decisions he believes are right at this time.”

Others point to a telling pattern of misjudgments during his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem from 1993-2003.

The worst cited example was his secret approval of the opening of a Herodian tunnel in Jerusalem’s Old City, leading to riots in which more than 160 Palestinians and 14 Israelis died.

Despite portraying himself as a football fanatic and an avid runner who gave up cigar smoking in his first act as prime minister, Olmert has been unable to shake off his image as a fat-cat lawyer tainted by sleaze.

In 1997 he was indicted in a political finance scandal involving Jerusalem businessmen, organised crime and corrupt legislators, but was later acquitted.

In February this year an inquiry was announced into the 1999 sale and lease-back of his Jerusalem house in allegedly questionable circumstances.
Tom Segev, a historian and columnist, has described him as “arrogant, cold, cunning and unpleasant”.

Another writer takes a more balanced view: “His background is not impressive and he was never popular in the Likud party, but he is making an effort. During interviews he used to explode with rage in the first 30 seconds, but now he’s behaving in a more civilised way. He comes over as very nice, articulate, shrewd and only sometimes aggressive. He’s a very clever guy.”

Olmert’s worst critics are his own family, where he counts himself “in a minority of one”.

His wife Aliza, a left-wing playwright and artist whom he met at college, has been at odds with his right-wing politics for much of their 35-year marriage. His recent move to the centre ground persuaded her to vote for him for the first time this year, albeit with “a certain hesitation”.

Her husband was at his most insufferable as mayor of Jerusalem, she confessed recently, when he played a role in expanding Jewish settlements and confiscating Palestinian land. It was their “worst time as a couple” and she found it difficult “to listen to his nationalistic speeches”.

As an artist she has exhibited all over the world and her recent work featured broken eggshells. A standard joke is that her husband tried to walk on them while mollifying his five children, who lean towards their mother’s dovish views.

As mayor, Olmert withdrew funding from an annual gay pride parade, to the displeasure of his daughter Danna, a lesbian who lives openly with a girlfriend in Tel Aviv and is active in Machsom Watch, a group monitoring Palestinian human rights.

Then there are Olmert’s pacifist sons. Shaul, who lives in New York, signed a petition when he was a sergeant in the Israeli army refusing to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Olmert’s younger son Ariel avoided his military service and lives in Paris.

In the run-up to the general election in March, the mutiny in Olmert’s household was a gift to opponents, who accused the future guardian of Israel’s safety of harbouring a brood of peaceniks. “There is a complex dialogue between my children and me,” he responded.

“There are a lot of disagreements and anger, but they have influenced me and I am proud of it. I would like to believe that I have also influenced them.”

He was born in 1945 near Binyamina in the final years of British rule in Palestine.

His father Mordechai, a pioneer of Israel’s land settlement, grew up in the Chinese city of Harbin, where Olmert’s grandfather had settled after fleeing Russia after the first world war.

"When he died at the age of 88, he spoke his last words in Chinese,” Olmert recalled.

Like his parents, Olmert was an ideological child of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of the Alliance of Revisionist Zionists and the Irgun militia, intent on establishing the Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan.

The teenage Olmert was a member of Beitar, a militaristic youth movement, and saw his parents discriminated against for their support of Herut, the party that eventually became Likud.

Injured while serving in the Israeli Defence Forces as a combat infantry officer, he completed his military service as a journalist on the force’s magazine BaMahane. This demeaning soft option had an unforeseen benefit: during the Yom Kippur war he joined General Sharon’s headquarters as a military correspondent. The connection was to pay huge dividends.

With a law degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Olmert opened a successful law partnership in Jerusalem, providing the springboard for his election in 1973 as the youngest member of the Knesset, aged 28. He was impetuous and wrong, he admitted, in opposing withdrawal from land in Sinai captured in the Six Day war and voting against the Camp David peace accords in 1978.

As a rising — but colourless — politician, he was given several portfolios, including health, communications and finance, eventually becoming deputy prime minister in 2003.

As Sharon’s right-hand man he was a useful sounding board. Deputising for a Sharon stricken with flu, he was the first to float the idea of unilateral disengagement from Palestinian land.

Withdrawal went against his once hawkish views, but he believed it was the only response to the changing demographics of a growing Palestinian population that might eventually outvote Israelis. “The day that they do that is the day we lose everything,” he said.

Olmert just happened to be in the right place at the right time. When Sharon announced last year that he was leaving Likud to form a new party, Kadima, to implement his unilateral plans, Olmert was one of the first to join him.

When Sharon collapsed with a stroke on January 4, Olmert became acting prime minister and then prime minister at the head of a coalition government with Labour on April 14.

Luck continued to run his way. The victory of Hamas, the Islamic militant movement, in the Palestinian elections played into his hands by improving Israel’s standing abroad.

It allowed Olmert to proclaim that since he could not negotiate with terrorists, Israel was obliged to continue with his disengagement strategy.

That is still his avowed intention, although after his assaults on Gaza and Lebanon all bets are off.

“Do not meet troubles halfway,” a Jewish proverb goes.

Olmert has opted to go all the way, setting goals that may prove to be unattainable.

If he succeeds he will be a hero.

Failure would invite swift censure in a country that judges its leaders by results, not by good intentions.

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