The New Republic can always be counted on to provide insightful reporting on Israel, even when its commentators take a critical stance, and the standard was continued with a recent article that gave the fullest portrait I'm aware of of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's career. The article, titled "Virtually Normal," was by Gadi Taub of Hebrew University, and appeared in the May 29 issue.
The author made his best points by comparing Olmert to the man he's replaced, the ailing Ariel Sharon. He noted that, though both were longtime hawks and had experienced "sharp" political conversions, they were very different types from different generations.
"Sharon, 77 years old, always harbored a dark and tragic view of life – haunted by a fear that, after 2,000 years of exile, Jews have lost the very ability to plant roots. He spent his life obsessed with land. As a politician, he sought to ensure Jewish existence in the Middle East by literally bolting it to the ground; pouring tons of concrete into his housing projects in the occupied territories; and stubbornly defending every hill, plain and valley. This, he thought, would teach Israelis, as well as their enemies, that the Jews are here to stay. …
"Beyond this dark, even paranoid, view of the world, there was a tragic note behind Sharon's political conversion: At an old age, he learned that his lifelong efforts were mostly misguided. Only from the helm of state did he realize that Israel's existence was endangered rather than strengthened by the concrete he so relentlessly poured in the territories."
As for Olmert, Taub noted, there's been nothing dark or tragic in his life or character. Olmert "loves life, its pleasures and luxuries – well-tailored suits, Havana cigars, frequent traveling – and he trusts people more easily and delights in colorful company. During his campaign, he declared that he would make Israel 'a country it would be fun to live in.' It seemed to most analysts a frivolous way to talk about politics. But this was no mere slip of the tongue. More than most political elites, Olmert is extremely comfortable in a yarmulke and evinces genuine comfort with religious tradition. Still, Olmert's weltanschauung isn't beholden to a mythical conception of Jewish existence. Compared with Sharon, there is something lighthearted, even yuppie, about him."
Another telling point about Olmert, especially vis-à-vis Sharon, is that the former didn't fight in the War of Independence. Olmert was just 3 in 1948. For most of his life, Israel has been "a political fact," not a "yearning or a miracle." Olmert's generation was the "intentional product of Zionism," and the prime minister sees the Jews as "a normal people" who wish to live normal lives.
"Olmert is well-aware that he has to help Israelis sober up: The right has to awake from the biblical fantasy of Greater Israel, as the left has to put aside hopes for easy peace in a 'New Middle East.' "
None of this is trivial, suggested Taub, especially in a place "so haunted by fantasies."