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Why Olmert Must Go

The fall of Israel's prime minister is both a warning and an opportunity for a country mired in corruption and moral decline.

Jerusalem--Forget the envelopes stuffed with dollars being passed to Ehud Olmert by American businessman Morris Talansky. Forget the favors Olmert solicited for Talansky's business interests. Forget that 70 percent of the public thinks he's lying when he insists he took nothing for himself and that the cash was intended only for his election campaigns. Forget the half-dozen other inquiries into Olmert's business dealings that have made him the most investigated prime minister in Israel's history. Forget, even, the summer of 2006, when Olmert, arrogant and incompetent in equal measure, led Israel to the first failed military campaign in its history and couldn't protect the homefront from its worst attacks since the founding of the state.

Ehud Olmert must go because he doesn't understand why he must go. Incapable of shame, he has proved himself unworthy to lead a people who are fighting for their lives. For Olmert, there are no moral requirements for leadership. What I did is nothing compared to what others did, he is said to have complained to a confidant, and so summed up the ethos of his 35-year political career.

The end of Olmert's term is imminent. Labor leader and coalition partner Ehud Barak has finally said the obvious: Olmert cannot continue to govern while being preoccupied with overwhelming legal problems. And who here would trust a decision to invade Gaza or to withdraw from the Golan Heights made by a prime minister constantly seeking to divert attention from his personal woes?

No other Israeli prime minister ever based his continued governance on demoralizing rather than inspiring the public. In large part, Israelis haven't taken to the streets to bring Olmert down because, as they tell each other: They're all corrupt, so what difference does it make who is prime minister? Olmert has survived on cynicism, thrived on despair.

He represents a political culture that, left unchallenged, threatens to destroy Israel from within. Israel's leaders may be no more corrupt as a class than leaders elsewhere in the West. But that isn't good enough. Few leaders are forced to make life and death decisions so consistently as the leaders of Israel. The gap between the corruption at the top and the sacrifices of ordinary citizens--who serve in the army and then send their children to serve, and who pay among the world's highest taxes--has created an crisis in Israeli society. Olmert's ouster provides both a warning and an opportunity.

Why did we get to this point? One reason is that Israel was founded by revolutionaries who replaced the cautious morality of rabbinic Judaism with a rigorous but ultimately transient socialist ethic. The refugees who came from the Middle East and Eastern Europe were too disoriented to offer a cultural alternative. When socialism waned, the society lost its moral certainties. No official ethos has replaced Labor Zionism. Add three more factors--the rise of consumerism, the constant threat of war and terrorism, and the ongoing occupation--and the strain on ethical norms becomes formidable.

This ethical vaccuum has given rise to a class of politicians unparalleled in Israeli history in their disregard for personal morality--politicians like Moshe Katsav, the former president suspected of rape. Until the very end of his term, Katsav insisted that, like any citizen, he was innocent until proven guilty and so saw no reason to resign--even though the presidency is a ceremonial position whose sole responsibility is to uphold the honor of Israel.

Likewise, Olmert, who has made a career out of being technically innocent, acts even now as if keeping one step ahead of the law earns him the right to public trust. During repeated police questioning, the veteran head of his office, Shula Zaken, opted for silence. And Olmert's lawyers invoked legal technicalities to try to prevent Talansky from testifying before his return to New York--even though Olmert insists he has nothing to hide. Like Katsav, Olmert insists on the prerogatives of leadership while evading its ethical responsiblities. 

The leadership crisis reflects a wider ethical crisis that has penetrated every sector of Israeli society--from ultra-Orthodox child molesters to kibbutzniks caught manufacturing cocaine in a homemade lab. There was a time, not that long ago, when murder was front page news in this country; now, once-inconceivable crimes have become routine. These days, when Israelis discuss "the situation," they are more likely referring to the country’s ethical crisis than to Palestinian terrorism or the Iranian Bomb.

Who will replace Olmert? Probably Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the next in line in Olmert's party, Kadima. Though popular in the polls, Livni has little experience in security matters and has shown scant political courage in her relations with Olmert--for example, though she intially stood up to him over the Second Lebanon War, she quickly backed down. Her most notable achievement as foreign minister was negotiating the U.N.-sponsored ceasefire at the end of the war. That ceasefire has allowed Hezbollah to re-arm beyond its pre-war capacity, and last week's virtual takeover of the Lebanese government by Hezbollah is one more result of Livni's ceasefire. But in an environment where Israelis are looking for ethical strength as much as security expertise, Livni’s greatest asset is the widespread if untested perception that she isn’t corrupt. In the current atmosphere, that perception could carry her far.

Two fateful military decisions await the next leader: Should the government invade Gaza in an attempt to end the daily rocket attacks on Israel? And will it attack Iranian nuclear facilities? These challenges will need the support of the political system as a whole. Israelis’ disenchanment with the country’s political class means that none of Israel's current leaders has the clout to make those decisions alone. For that reason, the prospect of a national unity government, bringing together the Likud along with Kadima and Labor, will become increasingly compelling. When Olmert goes, Israel will have a chance to replace a monumentally failed leader with a collective of leaders who failed a little less miserably. 

But even a unity government is only a temporary solution. The end of Olmert needs to begin a process that will end Olmertism, the acceptance of corruption as an unavoidable part of Israeli politics. The current generation of politicians who grew up in the culture of Olmertism needs to be replaced by a new generation--young people in their 30s and 40s who, for example, helped transform the Israeli economy and high-tech sector. Precisely because they reject corruption, and value excellence and dedication, those young people have shunned Israeli politics. But as the Olmert affair proves, the country can no longer leave its governance to the vain and merely ambitious men who have desecrated the name of Israel.    

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor of The New Republic and a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

By Yossi Klein Halevi