Israel: What History Will Say About Ehud Olmert

If Ehud Olmert loses power over a corruption scandal now swirling in Israel, he may be remembered as one of country's least popular prime ministers. For most of his two-year term, his approval rating never climbed above 30 percent. But in July 2006, for a moment at least, he was held up as a political hero. Early that month, Hizbullah gunmen had ambushed an Israeli patrol on the border and abducted two reserve soldiers. The initial air raids Olmert ordered on
Lebanon elegantly destroyed most of Hizbullah's long-range al-Fajr missiles and earned him accolades for his judicious use of power. On July 17, he gave a speech that some in the Israeli media described as Churchillesque: "There are moments in the life of a nation when it is compelled to look directly into the face of reality and say 'no more'," Olmert told Parliament. A poll that week showed 78 percent of Israelis were pleased with his performance.

But public approval can be a false god. In this case, according to a new book, it emboldened Olmert to reject an early mediation effort that in retrospect marked the best chance of curbing Hizbullah power. Instead, he pursued a disastrous war. That's one of the arguments put forth by Israeli journalists Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff in "34 Days" (Palgrave Macmillan), a gripping account of the Israel-Lebanon conflict that erupted just seven months after Olmert took office. The consequences went beyond the many casualties suffered on both sides and are still unspooling. Olmert, who inherited office when Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke, never regained that popularity. Hizbullah re-armed after a time and grew stronger at the expense of Lebanon's moderates, just two weeks ago gaining veto power over government decisions. The rocket attacks on Israel's homefront exposed a vulnerability that countries like Syria and Iran are surely studying.

Harel and Issacharoff write for the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, but their critique feels measured, not partisan. The Hizbullah assault, they point out, came at one of the few junctures in Israel's history when neither the prime minister nor the defense minister had significant military experience. The Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, often the third man in the room, was an Air Force general who vacillated on the question of a ground war even
after it was clear airstrikes could not penetrate Hizbullah bunkers. The special ground units Israel did deploy met a surprisingly sophisticated enemy ­ tougher than the Palestinians they encountered in the West Bank and Gaza. In early battles at Maroun al-Ras and Bint Jbeil, 15 Israeli soldiers were killed. The painful toll fueled calls for revenge but also made cabinet ministers timid about approving more incursions. And for all the casualties and damage Israel inflicted, it could not stop Hizbullah from firing Katyusha rockets—4,000 in all.

A month after the start of the war, Olmert accepted a U.N.-mediated truce that called for disarming Hizbullah and having Lebanese soldiers deploy to the border. In the final two days before the agreement went into effect, he approved a large-scale ground offensive with devastating results for Israel: 33 soldiers were killed after the ceasefire had been agreed upon by all sides. The deal left unresolved the issue that drove Israel to war in the first place: the fate of the two abducted soldiers, which is unknown to this day. Earlier in the war, when
Hizbullah was smarting from the Israeli assault on its al-Fajrs, Harel and Issacharoff say the group was willing to consider handing over the two reservists to the authority of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. But Olmert, buoyed by his public adulation, demanded more, and squandered an opportunity. Two years on, the war and the corruption scandal may be sizing up
as the miserable bookends of his premiership.