The Case Against Benjamin Netanyahu

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.


A Change Is Gonna Come

Chen Guangcheng on freedom, violence, and the possibility of a revolution in China.

In terms of foreign policy, the United States places too much importance on interests. It should place importance on humanity's values. Democracy, rule of law, constitutionalism, human rights, especially human rights -- they should make that number one!

Before my escape, many friends among human rights activists, common people, and intellectuals felt a very strong sense of powerlessness. Some friends told me that after this thing happened, this voice of powerlessness is almost entirely gone. I think it's really great. I've always wanted the common people to believe that one's own strength can change everything.

When China's leaders talk about reform, they mean go slowly and change a little bit as you go. The precondition is that you definitely want to change, but you don't want to change too fast, or too thoroughly. [Laughs] Step by step, going slowly. But if you don't actively reform, you will passively get reformed.

The central government definitely knew I was illegally detained at home. As for how the local authorities invented lies to frame me to put me in prison, as for how they persecuted my entire family, [the central government] didn't necessarily know about the details. Yet now, six months later, I still haven't seen the central government follow the country's laws and keep its promise and investigate and deal with those officials who recklessly and illegally committed crimes.

If ordinary Chinese people heard about what happened to me, I don't think they would be able to believe the level of cruelty. The shamelessness of the powers that be would exceed their imagination. Just like they don't know they have a lot of strength to change the future of their country.

If I met Xi Jinping, I would very clearly tell him that any "powers that be" that don't follow the will of the people and depend instead on oppressing the common people and suppressing the will of the people to protect their rule absolutely cannot last for long. The Communist Party is no exception.

Throughout Chinese history, has any emperor said they want to hand over power? Every emperor wants his power to last generation after generation. But can they? The Communist Party cannot monopolize all of the power in the country forever. This is a reality they must accept.

I think China needs a leader like Chiang Ching-kuo [the son of Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek and the Taiwanese president from 1978 to 1988 who laid the groundwork for Taiwan's democratic transformation]. Someone who can keep up with the trends of society. Someone who knows that to use power is easy, but knowing when not to use power is difficult. The level of the Chinese people's determination seems very similar to the situation in Taiwan in the late 1970s. Society is in a near-lawless state of affairs. The rights of the common people have been violated.

Confucius had a common standard of evaluation. Universal values. Principles of fairness and impartiality. Principles of transparency and freedom of speech. If you go against these, it's not correct. If it is not correct, it's evil. If it's evil, can other people not interfere? The relationship among countries and the relationship among families are very similar. If you treat your wife and kids badly, even hurt them or kill them, should your neighbors not intervene? If I were his neighbor, I would rush over without hesitation and seize the weapon from his hand. Of course he can say, "This is my household affair; you cannot meddle." But this is not his household affair. He's gone past the limit, and now it's the world's affair.

The possibility of China facing a revolution in 2013 is pretty big. This is something that the powers that be in China understand more than anyone else. It's a pity that international society still does not understand this and has still not prepared. America should immediately start moving from dealing with China's powers that be to dealing with the Chinese people. It definitely won't be like 1989.

China is at a stage where it has to change. We're already at a crucial historic moment. Whether it's civilized or government-driven, and potentially violent, a transformation is inevitable.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images