Olmert seeks a legacy — Rabin’s

yitzhak_rabinehud-olmertariel_sharon_2004Ehud Olmert’s speeches on the occasion of Yitzhak Rabin’s 13th memorial had pundits wondering whether he was declaring a new diplomatic initiative, and whether he would be able to implement such a wide-ranging plan as he was laying out before the public. But that wasn’t the case.

In truth, his sweeping remarks about abandoning pieces of the homeland for the sake of peace were merely recycled phrases from a peace process as dead as Rabin. Really, the only thing being abandoned this week was any pretense on the part of Olmert at being the inheritor of Ariel Sharon; the only bold new initiative was Olmert sealing his not-so-subtle attempts to position himself as the spiritual successor to Rabin.

When Sharon fell into a coma in January 2006, the country was gearing up for new elections that were expected to give Sharon and his Kadima party a further vote of (shaky) confidence following the previous summer’s withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon’s illness forced Kadima strategists to switch the focus of the campaign from Sharon to Olmert, who had earned the No. 2 position in the party more by default than by merit. 

At first, Olmert played on the public’s sympathy for Sharon. In his victory speech following the elections in March of 2006, Olmert said his heart was really at Sharon’s bedside, lauding him as a courageous and visionary leader, etc. It was more of the same in April, during coalition talks, when Olmert talked of wishing to be able to tell a revived Sharon, “Arik, your dream has been fulfilled!” In May, speaking before Congress, Olmert took time to note that it was Sharon who “should have stood here.” The “legendary statesman, my friend and colleague,” Olmert said, had been felled, “but I am emboldened by the promise of continuing his mission.”

At the outset, it was clear, Olmert was playing the part of Sharon’s loyal heir. But that didn’t last long.

The next month, Olmert pushed out Sharon’s long-time confidant and foreign press spokesman. He also placed his cronies and yes-men in ministerial positions, and set out to established his own legacy. It was forged in short order, as the Second Lebanon War turned Olmert into a punching bag for politicians, journalists and men-on-the-street of almost all stripes (David Landau and his “etrog journalism” colleagues at Haaretz notwithstanding), and all sorts of other stains marred the record that Olmert tried desperately to present as sterling. 

Now the names most associated with Olmert’s legacy are Winograd (as in the government commission of inquiry set up to probe the failures of the Second Lebanon War), Talansky (as in the New York financier who spilled the beans about cash handouts that Olmert collected for years in return for vague political favors) and even Cremieux (as in the home in Jerusalem that Olmert sold to a political ally for far more than its market value, which signaled to authorities another payoff scheme).

Sharon’s name has fallen pretty far down on the list – and Olmert has kept it that way. He didn’t mention his political mentor at all in a lengthy interview with The Jerusalem Post this past January. He didn’t mention Sharon when he announced he was stepping down as prime minister. Since the spring of 2006, Olmert has rarely let Ariel Sharon’s name cross his lips. 

At the same time, Olmert has focused on territorial compromise with the Palestinians and with Syria as his signature initiatives. His identification with Rabin – as a diplomat first and, now, as a political martyr – has increased in time. His overtures surrounding Rabin’s memorial can best be understood as the point at which a butterfly emerges from its cocoon, transformed. 

Now, to a large degree, this makes sense. Olmert has lost all support from the Right, and has no credibility from left-wing do-gooders who demand “clean hands” politics. His only refuge, politically, lies in the path of territorial surrender and rhetorical flourishes about painful sacrifices for peace. The path, that is, of Rabin. (Or at least what has become of Rabin in the public consciousness.) 

But what is perhaps most interesting about this is that even the Left has moved away from Rabin. Each year, the memorial rally in Tel Aviv grows smaller and less strident; each year the attendees are younger and less aware of the nuances surrounding the times in which Rabin was murdered. Each year, the cult of Rabin grows more hollow and less sincere. The Second Intifada sucked the wind from the sails of the We Must Try Everything ship, disabusing most on the Left of the notion that it was right-wing Israelis, rather than Palestinian terrorists, who stood in the way of peace. The absence of Rabin’s name from the mouths of left-wingers looking for a different legacy is not unlike the absence of Sharon’s name from Olmert’s mouth and his own pursuit of a different legacy.

In the end, I’m sure, Olmert will try to present himself as something of a cross between the two men – or better, as per his style, the cumulative value of both. But history will surely judge him differently, as less than half of either Sharon or Rabin.

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