Ehud Olmert may decide not to run against Benjamin Netanyahu this time around. But either way, he’s betting that crossing an American president will have political consequences in Israel.
Ehud Olmert is running. Or maybe he's not. He insists he'll only make an announcement about his political future on Israeli soil, though he seems to take great pleasure in dropping hints. Either way, the former Israeli prime minister had a two-pronged message on this weekend's trip to America: Benjamin Netanyahu can be beaten in the upcoming elections in January. And peace with the Palestinians is still possible.
Coming just after the Netanyahu government announced it would build move forward on new settlements that the New York Times described as "effectively dooming any prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," and at a time when optimism in Washington about the Middle East writ large is at a deserved low, it's an alluring message. The conventional wisdom here has it that President Barack Obama needs to find a way to work with Bibi in his second term, because, difficult and disrespectful as the Israeli leader might be, he's not going anywhere.
Olmert offers the tantalizing possibility that maybe, just maybe, it doesn't have to be this way.
I caught up with the former prime minister on the sidelines of the Brookings Institution's Saban Forum, a largely off-the-record confab packed with high-level U.S. and Israeli officials, think tankers, and other assorted muckety-mucks. He was traveling light, as top Israelis often do -- with no entourage other than a security detail that seemed unusually relaxed.
The night before, Olmert had just held a public "conversation" with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, where he had scathing words for Netanyahu, his successor and former colleague in the Likud Party. Israel's settlement announcement, coming on the heels of a vote in which the United States was just one of nine opponents of Palestinian observer status, was the "worst possible slap in the face to the president," Olmert said.
The former prime minister also had strong words for Netanyahu's chief backer Sheldon Adelson, whom he said had "bought the political system" in Israel and "thought he could do the same thing in America with $100 million." Specifically, Olmert described his discomfort with a fundraiser Mitt Romney held in Israel with Jewish-American donors, including Adelson, who may have actually spent as much as $150 million in support of Republican candidates. It "smelled of something which was not appropriate," Olmert said. "I thought it was made in order to create the impression among American Jewish voters that Romney is riding on the shoulders of Israel to the White House, which I thought was a mistake. And the prime minister took part in this effort, which was totally unacceptable."
Olmert even broke the Saban Forum's ground rules by revealing that earlier on Saturday, Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had ripped into Netanyahu off the record for betting against the president's re-election -- a view he suggested was shared in the Oval Office. "I don't know how friendly Rahm Emanuel is with the president but I think he supports him," Olmert joked. "If he said what he said, probably he reflected a sentiment which may not be only his private sentiment, but something that many other people share with him."
But Olmert's real beef with Netanyahu -- the real reason he must go -- is that he is "not dedictated to the pursuit of peace in a realistic way," a mission he described as the "primary responsibility of every Israeli government." Once a hard-line mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert has now embraced the peace process with the passion of a convert, almost leaping out of his chair and gesturing emphatically at one point to exclaim, "What the party will reject, the people will accept!"
Olmert also worries that Netanyahu talks too much about Iran. "I think that Iran is a genuine problem -- enough to justify policies, and measures, and statements by Israel," he told me. "The question is whether we don't talk too much about it, we don't make it too much of a public issue, we don't create an unnecessary international debate that raises the profile of this, and perhaps prevent some countries from taking measures which they may have wanted to take but they don't want to be seen as Israel sort of giving orders, public orders to them."
As it happens, the qualities Olmert says Israelis are looking for in a challenger seem to describe Olmert himself (or perhaps Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister and Mossad veteran who is definitely running in January). "Experience in taking decisions on matters of national importance: matters of security and matters of defense and matters of potential national crisis, in the context of international relations, particularly with the United States of America, which is the greatest ally Israel has," he told me, noting, in case I didn't get the message, "And relations with America and with the American president are of great significance to Israeli voters."
But it seems to me, I replied, that Netanyahu had yet to pay any political price for that tension. "Well, you know, for the time being," he said archly.