A recent editorial in the Jerusalem Post (also reprinted in frontpagemagazine) came pretty close to calling my old friend Ehud Olmert a traitor to the Jewish people. Considering that Israel’s acting Prime Minister was one of the founding members of the Likud party, was a protégé of Ariel Sharon and helped expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and is now trying to implement a plan that, if successful, would ensure that most of those settlements would remain within Israel’s final borders, you might reasonably think that Olmert’s Zionist credentials would be unassailable. Not to the Jerusalem Post and other self anointed keepers of the Zionist flame, however. According to the paper, the political party created by Sharon and now headed by Olmert -- contemptuously referred to in the editorial as “the Kadima gang” – is in full Zionist retreat, having somehow been seduced by the pernicious doctrine that “unlike every other people in the world, the Jewish people does not have an inherent, natural right to exist as a free, sovereign and independent people in it’s homeland.”
It was with a mixture of sadness and bemusement that I read this neo Stalinist political mugging. I thought back to the time I lived in Jerusalem in the early 1970s and when I first got to know Olmert. I was a journalist, writing about Israel and the Middle East conflict for the New Statesman, The New York Times and other publications. Olmert was a 25 year old law school graduate and an activist in one of the small right wing Zionist parties. And, at the time, the Jerusalem Post was owned by the Jewish Agency, which was in turn controlled by Israel’s Labor Party. So the paper slavishly followed the left wing Labor political line, which obligated the editorialists routinely to refer to Olmert’s fellow Zionist Revisionists and followers of Zev Jabotinsky as a “gang” of “fascists” who would lead Israel to disaster if, God forbid, they ever came to power. Jabotinsky, of course, was the brilliant and classical liberal leader of the more militant wing of the 1930s Zionist movement. But because he opposed Ben Gurion’s socialism, he and his followers were doomed to be called “fascists.”
Perhaps because I was a recovering new leftist I recognized the Jerusalem Post’s obnoxious neo Stalinist style of the 1970s from what I had just experienced in Berkeley, the essence of which is that you not only dispute your political opponents’ arguments, but also brand them as agents, wittingly or unwittingly, of dark, outside forces. And I had gotten to know some of the perfidious Jabotinskyites, including my friend Ehud. I found him to be the very antithesis of a fascist, or any other kind of ideological extremist. He was fun to be with, open to reasoned argument from people of all political persuasions, interested in all things American, very practical minded, and very, very smart. He was also persuasive in showing me that Jabotinsky and his political heirs might have been right about a few crucial issues in Zionist and Jewish history.
The longest political conversation I had with him was during an almost all day car ride from Jerusalem to the Suez Canal during the cease fire of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. I had been covering the war on the Syrian front as a stringer for the New York Times, but after the guns had gone still I returned to my home in Jerusalem. One day I received a call from Olmert. He told me that he planned to drive down to the Suez Canal and try to get to Ariel Sharon’s command post on the canal’s west bank. Did I want to come along? I knew that Olmert had good connections—indeed, he was a friend of Sharon’s. So I said, why not?
Starting out from Jerusalem at dawn, we reached the canal by noon. Somehow, using Olmert’s Knesset credentials and my press pass, we managed to talk our way past several Israeli army checkpoints. We received permission to drive his car over one of the pontoon bridges that had been laid down by Sharon’s forces a week earlier and eventually found our way to Sharon’s encampment. That evening, Sharon invited Olmert and me into his command post for a snack. Some of his top officers were there, as well as another Israeli journalist. The conversation was off the record, and in any event my Hebrew was weak. Still, I caught the general drift—Sharon was venting about the absurd situation Israel now found itself in. Because the Labor government had decided to absorb the Egyptians’ first blow to appease international opinion, scores of Israel’s best young men had to die in the lightly fortified strong points on the east bank of the canal. Now, with the Egyptian Third Army surrounded and Sharon’s forces sitting astride the Ismailia-Cairo highway, the U.S. and the Soviets had intervened to save the Egyptians.
The Labor party’s disastrous handling of the war eventually led to the rise of the Likud, with Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert as two of its new leaders. At least in part, it was their bitter experience of the Yom Kippur war (that I had gotten a glimpse of that day at the Canal) that led Sharon and his young friend to fervently support expansion of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, to create facts on the ground in areas deemed vital to Israel’s security that could not easily be bargained away in the future under pressure from the great powers. Whether you believed that Sharon and Olmert’s support for settlements was right or wrong for Israel, it was made primarily for practical political and security reasons, not because of religious dogma.
I didn’t see Olmert all that often over the ensuing years as he rose through the political ranks. But after it became known that he, as Ariel Sharon’s Deputy Prime Minister, had first suggested the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, I made a point of seeing my old friend again last year. What had changed? I asked him. “The facts on the ground,” said the ever practical Olmert. The settlements that were once considered vital for Israel’s security had now become liabilities.
Admittedly, you could make reasonable strategic arguments on one side or another about the specifics of the Gaza withdrawal. But there was a deeper political and historical reason for Olmert’s turnabout. He told me of his nightmare scenario that one day the Palestinians would get smart, stop their senseless violence and come to the UN with a proposal to extend the principle of one man, one vote to the entire land of Israel (or Palestine) from the Jordan to the sea. “Do you think there is one country in the world, including the United States, that could say no to this?” Olmert asked me. The unspoken follow up question was: What would Israel do in such a circumstance? Even if the Palestinians didn’t yet constitute a majority, why would any Jew want to live in an ostensible Jewish state in which 40% of the voters were disgruntled Muslims? Would any sensible European or American want to live in such a country?
Because of a terrible and unforeseen tragedy my old friend will almost certainly be Israel’s next Prime Minister in his own right. Despite the fact that he lacks Sharon’s charisma or military experience Israel’s sensible political center is willing to trust that he can forestall the nightmare political scenario, separate from the impossible to live with Palestinians, and perhaps again make Israel, as he put it in one of his election statements, “a country that’s fun to live in.”
That’s not messianic Zionism, it’s the desire for normalization. But then again, as Ehud Olmert would know and some of his enemies on the right have forgotten, normalization is itself classic, Jabotinskyan Zionism.
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