As Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert prepares to leave office, he does so under a cloud of successive ethical and political failures. He departs his office with the noteworthiness of being the first Israeli prime minister to leave after having been indicted on charges of theft, breach of trust and fraud.
Additionally, unlike many of his predecessors, he leaves office with practically no popular support.
This cloud, however, does not seem to be affecting Mr. Olmert publicly.
“I am leaving with a sense of joy and satisfaction,” Mr. Olmert said yesterday, without hesitation, on his final day in office, three years after he was elected.
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His term in office likely will be remembered as much for its failures as anything else.
Mr. Olmert’s tenure oversaw the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, which the Winograd Commission – which he appointed to investigate Israeli conduct in the conflict – declared a failure.
The prime minister’s decision to send Israeli troops into Gaza in late December and early January produced few results except to strengthen Hamas’ resolve. The invasion had been intended to prevent the militants from firing rockets and mortar shells at Israeli targets; however, they did not stop. Mr. Olmert’s effort to return Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli prisoner of war held by Hamas in Gaza, likewise failed, and the war in Gaza made Israel especially hated worldwide.
From the day he failed in Lebanon and the investigations against him began, it was clear he was living on borrowed time. Since then, he has engaged mainly in survival.
The September 2007 strike against a Syrian nuclear reactor stands as his only acknowledged real achievement. Few details of the strike, however, are actually known.
Mr. Olmert leaves office as the “almost” man. He “almost” reached a breakthrough with Syria. He “almost” signed with the Palestinian Authority to end the conflict, and he “almost” brought back Gilad Shalit.
The charges against the outgoing prime minister, according to Israel’s law enforcement agencies, stem from his having allegedly abused his decades of power and status to gain – by every possible means – apartments, benefits, appointments for associates, airline tickets for family members, envelopes filled with cash, all at the public’s expense.
He will now stand trial on three criminal indictments, concerning accusations that he mishandled private investments, took bribes from an American businessman and embezzled funds from philanthropies.
Mr. Olmert’s legacy contrasts with previous Israeli prime ministers who left office with pride and who have major institutes and centers named after them, such as Golda Meir, David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Menahem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
The departing prime minister has hired public relations professionals to promote him as a speaker abroad, where he will ask for top fees to cover the legal costs that he will incur in the years to come. It remains to be seen if Mr. Olmert’s reputation in Israel will follow him abroad.
David Bedein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org