Ehud Olmert’s appearance at the Saban Forum last week was a big hit in Washington. The former prime minister spoke passionately and combined an adequate amount of humor, politics, and mystery. He said all the right things: that Benjamin Netanyahu has done terrible things for the peace process and hinting that he, Olmert, might at some point return to Israeli politics to repair the damage. Observers loved it.
Call it the Abba Eban factor. Or, if you prefer, the Shimon Peres factor.
Eban was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and Foreign Minister. Shimon Peres occupied several offices, and today is President of Israel. Both were seen as urbane and cultured—Eban’s Cambridge accent and Peres’s eastern European inflections were both endearing—and not at all representative of the quintessential Israeli quality of aggressive pushiness bordering on rudeness.
More than these qualities, though, was their orientation toward compromise with the Palestinians. Both were seen as having shifted from hawkishness to dovishness on the peace process. Eban was famous for referring to the 1967 lines as “Auschwitz borders” (though he later regretted the term) while Peres was one of the fathers of Israel’s defense industry and the one who fought Yitzhak Rabin on behalf of settlers in the early 1970s.
Today, both are considered to be smart former insiders who know what’s best for Israel. On this basis, both had larger, more dedicated constituencies outside of Israel than inside it. Eban was seen in Israel as a delusional leftist unaware of its real security threats. In addition to that accusation, Peres was for a long time viewed as a politician interested only in furthering his own position.
Olmert is their latest incarnation: he initiated two terrible wars during his term, but now speaks fervently of how close he came to peace. And his legal troubles, political maneuverings, and bad decisions are derided in Israel.
The near-hero-worship in Washington rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of Israeli politics itself. Natan Sachs has convincingly shown that neither the numbers not the politics add up to an Olmert victory in the Israeli election. Yet observers continue to hope.
This is facilitated by pundits’ direct comparison of Olmert to Bibi. (Blake Hounshell’s interview with Olmert is titled “The Case Against Benjamin Netanyahu.”) Let’s be honest: Olmert certainly comes off favorably. There is a real dislike for Bibi, who’s seen as something like an aggressive war-monger with a superiority complex. Steven Cook put it best when he tweeted during a conversation about the issue, “Olmert has a bigger constituency in D.C. (where polite company disdains Netanyahu) than Israel.”
There is also the conviction that Olmert has made a major transformation in the name of peace. There is great frustration in D.C. about Israeli actions on the peace process. Olmert, like Peres and Eban before him, is considered to represent the heroic Israeli who is willing to lay it on the line for peace.
When Olmert said near the beginning of his Saban discussion that the “Government of Israel has to be changed,” there was some applause from the audience. Olmert’s contention, reported in Open Zion, that he supports the Palestinian bid for non-member state status at the U.N. was tweeted over a thousand times. And in his write-up of the Saban meeting, David Remnick notes that Olmert moved “courageously to the left on the Palestinian issue.
For a while, analysts made the same mistake with Tzipi Livni. The latest poll has her eponymous party winning six seats. Contrary to expectations, that’s not enough to challenge Bibi, but it is enough to strengthen him —the opposite preference.
The longstanding admiration for Israeli hawks-turned-doves in Washington is a problem, because it leads to unrealistic expectations. Waiting for Israelis to elect the leader Washington prefers is simply not good policy.