Papers give Olmert a moment of grace

By Alex Brummer, August 7, 2008

The Israeli PM's ‘resignation' was followed by some good press - for once

The premiership of Ehud Olmert could hardly be described as a golden period for Israel. The Kadima leader presided over the heavily criticised Lebanon campaign, saw his approval fall to the lowest level of any leader in Israel's history and became embroiled in corruption allegations. He looked a perfect example of Enoch Powell's maxim that "all political careers end in failure".

Yet the press since Olmert announced his intention to step down has been remarkably sympathetic. The image of the unpopular political insider on the make has been displaced. Instead, he has been described as a smart intellectual who dared challenge the traditional opposition on the right to a two-state solution, opened lines of communication with the Palestinians and Syrians and presided over a renaissance for the economy.

A lengthy analysis by Tobias Buck in the FT was among the most positive. Buck noted that under Olmert's stewardship, Israel "continued to outperform other developed economies" with growth rates of more than five per cent, and that foreign investment has poured into the country.

Olmert, he noted, launched the first serious peace initiative with the Palestinians for seven years. His intellectual contribution was to argue that Israel should agree to a Palestinian state "out of naked self-interest".

Writing in the Guardian, Tel Aviv-based Rachel Shabi noted that jaded Israelis had seen Olmert as "having a sufficiently long police record to qualify as a politician". But despite 600 checkpoints and the expansion of settlements, she suggested that his emotion-laden departure offered hope. Now that he was freed of the burdens of politics he could concentrate on peace negotiations. Palestinian and Syrian negotiators "could get final status agreements on paper in the few remaining months of his premiership" This echoed Zvi Bar'el in Ha'aretz. He noted that Bashar Assad and Mahmoud Abbas "hold documents and agreements drawn up during Olmert's tenure - maps and security proposals on the Golan Heights, formula drafts on the right of return and the borders of the Palestinian state" which could help future deals.

The Jerusalem Post, too, ran a glowing editorial tribute in which Olmert's resignation speech was deemed "dignified". In the same paper, Jeff Barak, former JC acting editor, said Olmert did "run the country well" - but then cooled things a little by noting Olmert's regime had been "a waste of time".

The New York Times struck an optimistic note suggesting that Olmert might be able to reach agreement on the four "final status" issues that have impeded the peace process since 1979. But correspondent Helene Cooper was not convinced he could sell such an outcome to his public.

Back in the UK, the Independent found it difficult to be generous to Olmert. It noted that his government had been paralysed by the allegations against the PM, public support had plummeted and his departure timetable is too tardy. He was a lame duck who tarnished the country's reputation. There was little chance of any progress being made with the Syrians or Palestinians during his final weeks in office. The Times commentator Bronwen Maddox was a little kinder. She suggested that although he had been a weak leader his exit "jeopardises the few important things he had done".

It was only to easy to mock Olmert for his shortcomings while in office. But he does leave a better legacy than many people in Israel or in the diaspora give him credit for. As Ha'aretz noted, he opened a dialogue that his successors "will have to accept, reject or adopt in part". After two years of universally negative headlines Olmert finally won some accolades.

Last updated: 11:53am, August 7 2008