Forward Thinking

What Olmert's Conviction Means for Peace

By Nathan Jeffay

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The Israeli legal system just got its teeth back.

Much has been written about the conviction this week of Israel’s Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a bribery trial. The reverberations of the ruling are felt far and wide.

In the political sphere, this seems to be the end of the dream which continued to linger among some Israelis that Olmert would make a political comeback soon and complete the peace deal with the Palestinians, which some say was tantalizingly close when scandal forced him from office.

But one of the most important ramifications is in the legal, not political, realm. Israel’s state prosecution was humiliated at the end of last year, when it lost its much-anticipated corruption case against politician Avigdor Lieberman.

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Jonathan Pollard and the Spying-on-Israel Scandal

By Sigal Samuel

Israelis call for the release of Jonathan Pollard on March 19, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel.

“Hypocritical.” “Illegitimate.” “Unacceptable.” All these words and more are being used in Israeli political circles to describe Friday’s revelation that the NSA spied on former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former defense minister Ehud Barak in 2009.

And how does the Israeli right wing believe its government should respond to this revelation? Well, it should demand that the U.S. release Israeli-American spy Jonathan Pollard, a man sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of spying for Israel, pronto. Because, obviously, right?

This reaction is so absurd that not even Netanyahu — a longtime Pollard advocate — can assent to it. He agrees that the NSA espionage constitutes an egregious breach of trust between allies — as he made clear in a statement Monday. And he agrees that Pollard should be freed — as he reiterated Sunday in a renewed request for Pollard’s release. But even he is too embarrassed to suggest there’s any sort of causal link between the NSA espionage and the case for clemency where Pollard is concerned. In fact, he went out of his way to clarify that his request “is neither conditional on, nor related to, recent events, even though we have given our opinion on these developments.”

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The 'If Only' Man

By Nathan Jeffay

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Ehud Olmert

Ehud Olmert, Israel’s former Prime Minister and the center left’s “if only” man, is expected to confirm any moment that he won’t be running for Knesset.

Soon after the January 22 election was announced, speculation has abounded that if Olmert made a comeback and pulled together a broad center-left alliance he could actually win and once again become Prime Minister. From there, it was said, the Middle East would be his oyster — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently said that he was close to a deal with Olmert in 2008, intimating that the two could return to this point if Olmert returned.

There was some polling to back up this dream. In fact, it appeared that when Likud decided a month ago to run on a joint ticket with Yisrael Beytenu it was a case of Netanyahu trying to ensure that he would have the most Knesset mandates behind him even if Olmert entered the race.

But then came Operation Pillar of Defense, knocking the issues championed by the center-left — Israeli-Palestinian peace and socio-economic issues — off the public agenda and putting security at the forefront. Even if it was right a couple of weeks ago, the national mood in Israel isn’t right for Olmert now.

And so, for the second time in his career, Olmert leaves us all wondering what could’ve been. What could’ve been on the Israeli-Palestinian front had scandal not forced him out of office when it did? Was he planning on running in the coming elections? If so, what could’ve been during and after the election has it not been for Pillar of Defense?

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Will Gaza Rockets Reelect Bibi? Is That Hamas' Aim?

By J.J. Goldberg

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Benjamin Netanyahu

Center-right commentator Shalom Yerushalmi at Maariv argues that the rockets from Gaza seem likely to turn the upcoming Israeli elections once again into a referendum on who has bigger guns, meaning a Likud reelection. Sadly, he says, that would again bury the election that seemed to be shaping up, the one that Israel deserves, the one that’s typical in normal democracies, over the country’s intolerable social and economic inequities.

This assumes, at least in part, that Israel launches a serious attack into Gaza to stop the rockets, in some sort of reprise of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09. Military correspondents Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff at Haaretz think that’s unlikely and will have to settle for less aggressive action, like resuming aerial targeted assassinations of Hamas leadership. They say Bibi’s freedom of action is limited because

…the diplomatic reality now is far different than it was when that offensive was launched in 2008: Israel fears a direct confrontation with the new regime in Egypt and it knows that neither the United States nor Europe will be as tolerant of a large-scale military operation this time around.

Here’s my question: Is it possible that Hamas has heated up the border, after close to three years of relative quiet (broken mainly by jihadi groups) because it wants the Likud to win – that it fears a possible victory by an Olmert- or Livni-led center-left leading to renewed negotiations with Abu Mazen? Is this Hamas’s bid to ward off a two-state solution and keep Palestine indivisible? I’m just saying …

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2 Questions: 1st, Will GOP Let Him Govern? 2nd, Will Olmert Run?

By J.J. Goldberg

Now that Obama has won the Electoral College, two questions remain. First, will he win the popular vote? Second, will Republicans let him govern? There are some very big decisions to make, starting with a deal on the budget and the debt, and addressing the growing climate crisis. Will the Republicans be chastened by their strategy of obstructing everything, or will they sit down and begin talking about real compromise?

Will the Senate Republicans the chamber do business, or will they keep tying everything up in filibusters? Will the House negotiate in good faith? Or will they double down on the policy of blocking everything to make the administration look incompetent?

Another question relates to Israel. Bibi got a big splash of cold water in the face. Olmert and Livni are generally thought to be holding out to see whether they will have a cooperative, competent and experienced White House to help them work on the peace process. Now that they’ve got it, will they jump in? And can they work out a big center-left coalition to face Bibi-Liberman?

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Bibi-Liberman End Run vs. 2 States: The Odds

By J.J. Goldberg

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Israel’s political map is about to upended when Netanyahu and Liberman go on television at 2 p.m. Eastern time to announce a joint Knesset run. They’re apparently not merging their parties but forming a joint list. The aim is to ensure that Bibi ends up with the largest Knesset bloc after the January 22 elections, guaranteeing that he can form the next government. A Haaretz poll last week showed that if Ehud Olmert enters the race atop a new list that includes Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, he would outscore the Likud by one seat, 25-to-24, and win the first shot at forming a coalition. An earlier Jerusalem Post poll showed the Olmert superlist doing even better, beating the Likud 31-27. News 1 reports today that Bibi and Liberman could jointly grab 40 seats, guaranteeing that they bury even an Olmert superlist.

The kink in the plan is the religious vote. Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party puts a very high priority on a secularist agenda. Haaretz reports today that the joint Bibi-Liberman list is expected to give high priority to Liberman’s secularist agenda, and might even reach out to bring Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party into a governing coalition. But the Likud relies heavily on religious voters who won’t like that. There’s a good chance that some of them will flee to the settler-based national-religious bloc, which appears to be running under a new banner that will join the Bayit Yehudi-NRP party with the National Union, reducing the Knesset strength of the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list. It’s possible, though, that some will break toward Shas, particularly now that Arye Deri is returning (sharing power with Eli Yishai, who remains no. 1 on the Knesset list but hands over the party chairmanship to Deri).

So the 60,000 shekel question becomes: Can Haim Ramon engineer a center-left coalition that brings back Olmert atop a new list uniting him and Livni with Lapid and Mofaz’s Kadima, and work out a platform that allows them to join after the election with Ramon’s old friend and fellow dove Arye Deri? Can the various personalities bury their egos and feuds and join together to restore the peace process and two-state solution before it dies forever?

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Will Olmert Be Back?

By Nathan Jeffay

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Ehud Olmert

Will he, or won’t he?

Now that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been exonerated on the key corruption charges that forced him out of office four years ago, everyone is asking whether he’ll try to make a political comeback. After all, it has emerged since he left office that he was involved in some pretty serious talks with the Palestinians, and he’s quietly built up his reputation as Mr. Missed Opportunity — the man who could have reached a peace deal if he hadn’t been forced out.

There are very different signals reportedly coming from Olmert. “I’ll return to political life and run for prime minister,” he told associates just before the verdict, according to Haaretz. “I’m the only politician who can run as a candidate for the center bloc. There’s no one else there — neither Shaul Mofaz nor Yair Lapid nor Shelly Yachimovich [can do it],” he reportedly said, referring to the Kadima and Labor leaders respectively.

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Olmert Cleared in Case That Unseated Him

By J.J. Goldberg

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Ehud Olmert

Ehud Olmert, whose indictment and resignation in 2008 aborted his peace negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and opened the way to the deadlock under Benjamin Netanyahu, was found not guilty this morning by the Jerusalem District Court of the main corruption charges that forced his resignation. And aborted the negotiations.

The three-judge panel, which read aloud a summary of its 700-page verdict, found that the charges had not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. News 1 reports that the detailed ruling expresses serious doubt about the nature of the charges and the reliability of some key witnesses, making it unlikely that the prosecution could win on appeal.

Olmert was charged with setting up a double billing system through Rishontours travel agency in order to get double reimbursement from overseas groups that invited him as a guest speaker. He was also charged with receiving envelopes of cash from Long Island fundraiser Morris Talansky in what were portrayed as bribes for undetermined purposes. The judges ruled that there was no proof Olmert was aware of the double billing in the Rishontours case, and that no effort was made to hide the activity, which cast doubt on the likelihood of fraudulent intent. Olmert had maintained his complete innocence all along.

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