J Street wrapped up its third conference in Washington DC the other day. Launched in 2008 as a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” alternative to AIPAC, it has, over the years, found itself drifting into AIPAC’s gravitational pull, shifting ever slowly to the right. Arguably, one could point to the moment when J Street supported Obama’s (or was it essentially Netanyahu’s?) veto of Palestinian statehood in 2011 as confirmation of J Street’s decaying orbit. However, for me, J Street’s ultimate periapsis took place Monday night when its members cheered former prime minister Ehud Olmert, the keynote speaker at the organization’s gala dinner.
Ehud Olmert’s premiership brimmed with promise back in 2006 but ultimately proved to be a great disappointment. He served barely three years as Israel’s prime minister, garnering the lowest approval ratings of any Israeli leader in living memory before resigning in disgrace in 2009.
Olmert’s political career began in the ranks of Gahal, the forerunner of today’s Likud party. He was elected to Knesset in 1973 and served as an MK for seven terms, leaving only after Likud lost in 1992. In 1993, he defeated the legendary Teddy Kollek to became Jerusalem’s first Likudnik mayor.
As much as any mayor of Jerusalem has to kowtow to the haredi sector, Olmert elevated (or should I say “lowered”?) his genuflecting to abject prostration. As Yehuda Amichai wrote, it is sad to be the mayor of Jerusalem. And perhaps Olmert was the saddest mayor of them all. His last-minute alliance with the city’s leading rabbis secured his victory, but it also brought the haredim into the municipal government. For the first time, the haredim had unhindered access to the city’s coffers.
(If the previous statement sounds critical of the haredim, the opposite is true: I greatly admire the haredi political machine. They organize. They vote and in massive numbers. If they participate in the democratic process, they should reap the rewards. As the Good Book says: Winner take all.)
From the perspective of many non-haredi Jerusalemites, myself included, Olmert messed up Israel’s capital.
From Safra Square to Balfour Street
Olmert’s obeisance to the haredim guaranteed him a second term in 1998. When Olmert announced that he would not seek a third term in 2003, his deputy, Uri Lupolianski, stood at the ready to become Jerusalem’s first haredi mayor.
For many of those years, when I stood in line to pay arnona, I felt mah zeh freier (such a dope). Looking up to the mayor’s office balcony as I made my way home, I longed for someone who would run Olmert out of Kikar Safra. I never imagined he would end up at the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street, not 15 minutes away. But I was heartened nonetheless.
For the first time in my lifetime, the man who would command Israel’s political hierarchy would not have the cadence and diction of a military commander. For the first time, someone from the political class would be making political decisions based on politics. As head of Kadima, Israel’s putatively centrist party, Olmert talked peace. This, I thought, could be good.
And then, Olmert messed up again. Olmert made war and more war, first in Lebanon in 2006 (which inspired the Hebrew Google bomb linking “Olmert” with “miserable failure”) and then Gaza in 2008, which resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 Palestinians and charges of war crimes, including the use of white phosphorous and DIME weapons in close proximity to civilian populations. And, in the interim, he took much money from individuals under suspicious circumstances. As I mentioned at the outset, Olmert ultimately resigned his position in disgrace.
Olmert’s other lasting legacy is being at the top of the leader board for the most investigated Israeli prime minister in history. I cannot say definitively whether Olmert ranks first or second with four (or is it five?) separate investigations, because I had some difficult keeping track of all the police inquiries. However, at least one investigation culminated in his indictment in January, 2012 — for taking bribes.
And now he has messed up J Street. By inviting this individual, a miserable failure as a peacemaker, a rapacious war-maker, and a corrupt leader, it is unclear to me what J Street was trying to achieve besides scuttling its reputation as a “pro-peace” organization. Were they trying to rehabilitate Olmert — or was Olmert using them to rehabilitate himself? Or were they using him to broaden their appeal to the center-right, which still might regard Olmert with some affection?
I do not know. Perhaps commenters might enlighten me in between the invective that is sure to come.
Olmert will return to irrelevance. But J Street? What of them now?
I was never a big supporter of J Street. Nonetheless, as a lover of Israel and as a progressive who wants Israel to have a peaceful, secure future, I wonder: What else might we expect from J Street before the next conference? What else can we expect from this small satellite of AIPAC before their orbit decays completely?