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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.

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The liberal leaning upper middle classes would support him because they identify with his bold political proposals to end the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. The right-leaning middle and working classes who would have normally been alienated by the cigar-chomping, jet-setting, Montblanc-collecting politician can now view him as a victim of the establishment – someone set up and almost taken out by the perceived elite “rule of law gang.”

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Olmert’s path back to the leadership of his Kadima party seems paved. As does a political alliance with an important emerging centrist figure, Olmert’s friend, the former journalist and media personality Yair Lapid. Mr. Lapid recently established the Yesh Atid party, whose platform focuses on improvements in health care, affordable housing, public education, Israel’s governance system, and other concerns popular with the middle class.

If Olmert does return, the political discussion in Israel, dominated as it is by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fixation on Iran and a recent popular fascination with the question of enlisting the ultra-orthodox to military service, is going to change. 

Olmert will almost certainly refocus Israel on the Palestinian question. Whether or not he could defeat Mr. Netanyahu in a general election remains to be seen. But Olmert’s return to politics would mark an interesting shakeup of the Israeli political scene and would, at the very least, present Netanyahu with a formidable challenge and force him to broaden the set of issues he presents to the Israeli public.

Perhaps it is fitting to end with a far-flung hypothetical. In a cell in Hadarim Prison near Tel Aviv sits another leader who gained his gravitas from being put on trial by Israeli authorities: Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti who, unlike Olmert, is actually guilty of the very serious charges leveled at him. He is a killer and a terrorist sentenced to five life sentences. But by some regards, he is no more a killer and no more a terrorist than other political leaders who have gone on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

With a bit of optimism and a bit of squinting it is possible to imagine a future Prime Minister Olmert releasing and reaching a historic deal with Mr. Barghouti. The Israelis and Palestinians desperately need their de Klerk and Mandela – two leaders who have the courage and the authority to tell their constituents that it is time to end the conflict even if the concessions involved are heart wrenching. The acquittal of Olmert could have, inadvertently, moved them closer to getting those leaders.

Nir Eisikovits teaches legal and political philosophy at Suffolk University where he directs the Graduate Program in Ethics and Public Policy. His recent book is “Sympathizing with the Enemy: Reconciliation, Transitional Justice, Negotiation.”


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