I can’t say I ever liked Ehud Olmert. But now I almost feel sorry for him. It isn’t pleasant the way he is being pounced on. The stories about envelopes stuffed with cash, cigars and luxury suites in posh hotels are good for gossip, but Olmert’s behaviour is no different from that of Binjamin Netanyahu or Ehud Barak. Netanyahu lived like a king in expensive hotels paid for by donors who, of course, asked for nothing in return. As for Barak, after decades as an army officer with a middling salary and a few years as a cabinet minister on a similar income, he disappeared from public view for a while to reappear a rich man with an apartment in one of the most expensive buildings in Tel Aviv. How do you get so rich in such a short time? Could it be by using connections acquired in the service of the state? Olmert was a very junior politician, just out of law school, when he started to get rich thanks to the relationships with heads of government departments he established as a parliamentary aide.
Ben-Gurion, Begin and Rabin didn’t decide to live modest lives and dispense with luxury: they were just not interested in luxuries, money or the easy life. But most politicians want power in order to enjoy the things it brings with it. In this sense the entire recent crop of politicians – Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weitzman, Shimon Peres, the two Ehuds and Netanyahu – were all normal politicians.
In Olmert’s case the conditions in which he lived as a child probably had something to do with it. He grew up in the 1950s in a part of the village of Binyamina near Haifa built by the Herut Party to house ex-Irgun members. It was a poor area, and the children of the village whose parents belonged to the political mainstream looked down on its new inhabitants. In those days the Herut Party (today’s Likud) was far from power and its members were considered outsiders. It may be that as he ascended the political ladder, the possibilities were just too intoxicating. And when an American ‘exile Jew’ (a contemptuous term for Jews outside Israel), a professional schnorrer, who considered it a great honour to support him, offered him goodies, the temptation was just too great.
Morris Talansky, who provided for Olmert for many years, treated him as a slave treats his master. In time, Olmert began to treat him like a servant. I almost wrote: as a colonial master treats a native. This is not unusual. Many Israelis treat the Jews of the Diaspora as if they were colonial subjects whose duty it is to serve and support the aristocrats of the ‘mother’ country. When they think and speak about American Jews, they inadvertently repeat anti-semitic stereotypes. Talansky fits the stereotype perfectly. Olmert saw him this way, and this is how he saw himself. When Olmert came to America he honoured Talansky by allowing himself to be shown off to Talansky’s Jewish neighbours and acquaintances. This raised Talansky’s status, for which he was prepared to pay – and pay a lot.
Olmert craves haverim. Haver is a Hebrew word meaning comrade, friend, pal, army buddy. (Bill Clinton famously ended his eulogy for Rabin ‘Shalom, Haver!’) The haverim he wants most are intellectuals and/or rich people, people who admire and love him. He loved to pamper his friends, to take them with him whenever he went away. He showered them with warmth and charm, slapped their backs, gave them time and attention. For him that was part of the attraction of power. One of these friends, the lawyer Uri Messer, ‘ratted’ on Olmert to the police. Messer described himself as a ‘stinker’, the Israeli equivalent of an informer. One shouldn’t squeal and Messer now tortures himself. But as he says, he is not a ‘psycho’: he’s a man who betrayed a haver.
Why do these scandals always break when a leader takes a step towards peace, or pretends to take a step towards peace? The main thrust of the current establishment is towards occupation, expansion and war. Therefore, when a corruption scandal threatens a leader who is in any case moving in that direction, the scandal is hushed up. But when the scandal involves a leader who is making gestures in the direction of peace, the scandal is allowed to blossom. It happened to Sharon on the eve of the dismantling of the Gaza Strip settlements. It is happening now to Olmert because he has dared to speak about peace with Syria and the evacuation of the Golan settlements.
Olmert is a typical product of the cynicism and lawlessness that have infected this country in the 41 years of occupation. But of course there was corruption before that. A lot has been said about the Naqba on the occasion of Israel’s 60th anniversary, but one thing has been consistently ignored: the massive theft of abandoned Arab property. During the 1948 flight and expulsion, between a hundred and a hundred and fifty thousand Arab families abandoned their homes. Some of them lived in simple dwellings, but many lived in elegant houses in Jaffa, Jerusalem and Haifa. What happened to the contents of these homes? To the tens of thousands of expensive carpets, armchairs, wardrobes, pianos? What happened to the contents of shops? Some of these objects reached government storerooms and were distributed to new immigrants. But the huge majority were stolen, not usually by the soldiers who captured these places but by those who brought up the rear, the transport and quartermaster troops, the cronies of those in power, who brought lorries and loaded up everything they came across.
It wasn’t a secret. We talked about it at the time. For years you could see sofas and armchairs covered with velvet in offices. But there was never an investigation, and later on discussion of the subject was suppressed. I spoke about this several times in the Knesset. I mentioned the biblical story of Achan, the son of Carmi, who during the conquest of Jericho violated God’s command not to plunder. As punishment, the Israelites were routed at the next battle. ‘Israel has sinned, and they have also transgressed my covenant which I commanded them: for they have even taken of the accursed thing, and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have put it even among their own stuff’ (Joshua 7.11). Joshua executed Achan and his whole family by stoning.
The theft of this property violated the ethos accepted before the foundation of the state. The denial and suppression were worse. But large-scale corruption started with the occupation in 1967 and now permeates the state of the conqueror. That’s when the rot set in.