Ehud Olmert could be Israel's comeback kid – and make peace with Palestinians
After his acquittal from key corruption charges former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is well positioned as a comeback kid in Israeli politics. If Olmert does return, the political discussion in Israel is going to change, with renewed focus on the Palestinian question.
The July 10 acquittal of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from most of the corruption charges against him is a watershed moment for the Jewish state and, perhaps, for the whole region.Skip to next paragraph
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On the most obvious level, the verdict that clears Mr. Olmert of charges in two major matters undermines the credibility of the general prosecution in Israel. This is especially true given the harsh words the court had to say about the reliability and coherence of the star witness against Olmert. Many in Israel are wondering about the ease with which the attorney general’s office indicted a prime minister and threw an entire nation into turmoil on the basis of such testimony.
The acquittal may also have a chilling effect on the attorney general’s willingness and motivation to pursue future cases of political corruption. Constitutionally, the judgment has already reignited calls for checking the authority of the attorney general’s office, either by splitting its authority between different agencies or by creating an independent bureau that would oversee its decisions.
One way or another, what four years ago looked like a triumph for the rule of law – the ability of Israeli officials to fearlessly investigate and eventually prosecute a sitting prime minister – now looks more like something that could only happen in a banana republic: a political leader removed from office, at an incredibly sensitive time, on the basis of surreally flimsy evidence.
But the most interesting implications of the court’s decision are, of course, political.
Olmert was responsible for the most far-reaching proposal an Israeli government ever made to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His 2007 offer to Mahmoud Abbas included not only a retreat to the 1967 lines (with some territory swaps) and the allowance of a symbolic number of Palestinian returnees. Astonishingly, it also offered a commitment to the division of Jerusalem and to its joint administration by an international committee consisting of Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Jordanians, Saudis, and others.
In her memoir, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reports being amazed by these ideas and comments that late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated for offering much less.
The court’s decision may well clear the way for Olmert’s return to Israeli politics. Such a return depends on a pending case against him in which he is charged with accepting bribes connected to a construction project while mayor of Jerusalem. And such a comeback also depends on whether the judges will determine that there is special severity in the minor offense of which he was convicted Tuesday – breach of trust. Sentencing is scheduled to take place in September.
Neither of these contingencies is likely to pose a problem.
The pending case against Olmert is said to depend on a witness even less reliable than the one at the center of Tuesday’s acquittal. And the court is unlikely to issue a special rebuke on the breach of trust charges. After all, Olmert was thoroughly cleared from the two major accusations that gave rise to the indictment against him in the first place.
Olmert has announced that he will not return to politics. But that should be taken with a very healthy dose of skepticism. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, Olmert spoke with several associates shortly before the verdict in his case was handed down, and told them that he was the only viable centrist contender for prime minister. Israeli history certainly provides plenty of examples – from David Ben-Gurion to Yitzhak Rabin to Ehud Barak – of those who retired "permanently" from politics only to find themselves at the helm again a few years later. And Olmert is especially well positioned as a comeback kid.