Amid Gaza conflict, Olmert’s political future hangs in the balance

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Click photo to download. Caption: Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speaks at a private gathering in New York on Nov. 11. Credit: Maxine Dovere.

NEW YORK—During his recent tour of the United States, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared, “No rocket from Gaza can decide the future of the state of Israel.” But has the recent barrage of rockets from Gaza, as well as Israel’s “Operation Pillar of Defense” response, altered the state of Olmert’s political future?

At a private meeting Olmert held with supporters in New York on Nov. 11, JNS.org asked him about reports in Israeli newspapers anticipating an announcement of his candidacy for prime minister just two days later. Olmert said, “Don’t believe everything that’s in the papers—but some things you can believe.”

Nov. 13 came and passed without any word from Olmert, as Israel found itself engrossed in the conflict with Hamas. While rumors surrounding Olmert’s potential run for office were placed on the back burner, the Israeli election—set for Jan. 22, 2013—drew closer.

Olmert had been charged with serious financial crimes relating to political and personal contributions and accusations that he accepted bribes to approve expanded construction of the Holyland, a residential complex in Jerusalem. He was recently acquitted of all charges but one—breach of trust. He was fined and given a one-year suspended sentence.

That outcome opened the possibility for the resurrection of Olmert’s political career. Legally, he can run for prime minister, but he cannot be a cabinet minister. Opinion differs on “whether the prime minister is, technically, a minister, or a Parliament member empowered by the president to form a government,” according to the New York Times.

At Olmert’s Nov. 11 meeting in New York, the former prime minister discussed both the optimism and vibrancy of Israel and Israelis, counterbalanced by the ongoing concerns about security in a country being pillaged by rockets from Gaza.

“The range of rockets goes far beyond the [Negev] region,” he told attendees. “We have the courage and the determination. No rocket form Gaza will determine the future of Israel.”

Bolstering that future will be infrastructure improvements, especially the high-speed rail, that will unify the country and increase the efficiency of travel from the north to the south, according to Olmert. He praised rail development overall, but noted that several rail projects have not met their scheduled start dates. JNS.org asked Olmert whether he believed private investment and/or operation of transportation infrastructure would increase construction and operation efficiency. He declined to answer, indicating a need for additional information.

In response to a question from a meeting attendee about the projected “red line” at which Iranian nuclear progress will trigger a military response, Olmert strongly supported seeking a coalition to relieve Israel of the “sole responsibility of the decision to take out Iran.” The possible candidate reminded that the Iranian people are a highly developed and sophisticated society, and suggested that means other than military attack could be effective against stemming a military option.

“Israel has to be part of an international effort that will be backed by the United States,” Olmert cautioned. He recalled the coalition built by President George W. Bush before the invasion of Iraq, asking: “Why does Israel alone have to stand alone?”

When asked about the projected date when Israel’s actual red line for Iran will arrive, Olmert responded with yet another question.

“Why should we talk about that which we have not done?” he queried.

Despite the threat of terrorism and potential war, Olmert believes Israel will continue to grow significantly. He emphasized that areas where there is no question concerning Israeli sovereignty—specifically the Negev and the Galilee—should be prime development targets. The former prime minister recalled that 10 years ago, supporting Negev expansion was “to go against the tide” of Israel’s public discourse.

“Don’t ever let anyone tell you a minister is busy,” he said. “A minister better have time for those who will build Israel, who have the vision, courage and ability to see beyond the obvious.”

Olmert stressed that his comments were not to be construed as political, saying with a smile, “I’m not in politics, you know.” He did acknowledge, though, that he had “certain arguments with the present government.”

The former prime minister spoke with specific admiration about the creation of the Or Movement, which promotes development in the Negev and the Galilee that “will be significant for Israel” and important for “finding better alternatives.” He praised the imagination and foresight of Or Movement founders Ophir Fisher and Roni Flamer, noting their pioneering efforts. “At the end of the day,” he said, “the history of the State of Israel entirely depends on the ability to develop the Negev.”

The region comprises 40 percent of the internationally recognized territory of Israel and “can hold four to five million people comfortably,” according to Olmert.

Throughout his travels in Britain and the U.S., Olmert has spoken at private meetings similar to the one JNS.org attended Nov. 11 in New York. At such meetings, Olmert has not hesitated to criticize Netanyahu’s handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

He has also spoken before larger crowds, including one of more than 1,000 people at last April’s Jerusalem Post conference in New York, during which he criticized Netanyahu’s foreign policy and warned against unilateral Israeli military action against Iran. Then, the audience loudly booed the former prime minister.

After his private meeting in New York, Olmert returned to Israel in the midst of the country’s active defensive actions against Gaza rockets that had kept more than a million Israelis not further than 15 seconds from a shelter, virtually paralyzing life in much of southern Israel, and by week’s end intermittently reaching as far as the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Olmert postponed anticipated meetings with his potential coalition partners in a run for prime minister—former Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni and current chairman, Shaul Mofaz—and his expected announcement about that candidacy was also put on hold.

Stay tuned.

Posted on November 18, 2012 and filed under Conflict, Features, Israel.