What Can Be Learned from the Memoirs of Two Israeli Prime Ministers Whose Terms Ended in Failure?

Aug. 21 2019

Last year saw the publication of two memoirs by former Israeli prime ministers: My Country, My Life (in English), by Ehud Barak, and In the First Person (in Hebrew), by Ehud Olmert. To the Israeli public, both Ehuds are remembered as failures. Besides Barak’s withdrawal from Lebanon, there was his failed peace bid—rejected by Yasir Arafat—followed by the second intifada, which drove him from office and from which the Labor party never recovered. Olmert’s record includes an even more generous failed peace bid—rejected by Mahmoud Abbas—and his poor conduct of the Lebanon war, which drove him from office and from which his now-defunct Kadimah party never recovered. To top it off, he was later convicted of corruption charges and spent time in jail.

Benjamin Kerstein reviews both books:

While sometimes critical of [the author’s] opponents, Barak’s My Country, My Life is remarkably generous and high-spirited, with little trace of remonstration or anger.

[Nonetheless], on the question of Israel-Palestinian peace, one must admit that Barak’s failure was total. And it is to his credit that he makes no attempt to evade this fact. [Moreover], he reveals . . . that extensive intelligence even before the Camp David negotiations showed that the Palestinians were preparing for war. . . . The terror wave, in other words, took Israel by surprise, but not Barak and his government. Here one must ask: why did Barak fail to take the proper precautions? . . . Why did he leave Israel open to such a devastating assault?

While Olmert’s failures may have left behind a smaller body count, he is, in Kerstein’s evaluation, far less willing to acknowledge it:

In the First Person is, one regrets to say, a laborious read: badly written, arrogant, ill-structured, laden with self-pity, self-evidently dishonest, and unremittingly bitter.

Olmert . . . spends dozens of pages describing the intricate negotiations [with the Palestinians], his personal cultivation of Mahmoud Abbas, and most of all the far-reaching concessions he was prepared to make to reach peace. It is clear that he is . . . proud of his efforts. But in retrospect, they seem both quixotic and ill-conceived from the start.

[The] concessions Olmert was prepared to make, like those of Barak, now seem to be at best reckless and at worst disastrous. . . . Olmert’s concessionary attitude seems to have bordered on obsession. On one occasion the Palestinian president, while being hosted for a dinner at the prime minister’s residence, asked Olmert for the release of 500 prisoners. Olmert said no: he would be happy to release 900. Unlike Barak, Olmert is unable to entertain the possibility that for Abbas, . . . peace may simply be undesirable.

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Read more at Tel Aviv Review of Books

More about: Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, Israeli politics, Second Intifada, Second Lebanon War

Europe-Israel Relations Have Been Transformed

On Monday, Israel and the EU held their first “association council” meeting since 2012, resuming what was once an annual event, equivalent to the meetings Brussels conducts with many other countries. Although the summit didn’t produce any major agreements or diplomatic breakthroughs, writes Shany Mor, it is a sign of a dramatic change that has occurred over the past decade. The very fact that the discussion focused on energy, counterterrorism, military technology, and the situation in Ukraine—rather than on the Israel-Palestinian conflict—is evidence of this change:

Israel is no longer the isolated and boycotted outpost in the Middle East that it was for most of its history. It has peace treaties with six Arab states now, four of which were signed since the last association council meeting. There are direct flights from Tel Aviv to major cities in the region and a burgeoning trade between Israel and Gulf monarchies, including those without official relations.

It is a player in the regional alliance systems of both the Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean, just as it has also become a net energy exporter due to the discovery of large gas deposits of its shoreline. None of this was the case at the last council meeting in 2012. [Moreover], Israel has cultivated deep ties with a number of new member states in the EU from Central and Eastern Europe, whose presence in Brussels bridges cultural ideological gaps that were once much wider.

Beyond the diplomatic shifts, however, is an even larger change that has happened in European-Israeli relations. The tiny Israel defined by its conflict with the Arabs that Europeans once knew is no more. When the first Cooperation Agreement [between Israel and the EU’s precursor] was signed in 1975, Israel, with its three million people, was smaller than all the European member states save Luxembourg. Sometime in the next two years, the Israeli population will cross the 10 million mark, making it significantly larger than Ireland, Denmark, Finland, and Austria (among others), and roughly equal in population to Greece, Portugal, and Sweden.

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Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: Abraham Accords, Europe and Israel, European Union, Israeli gas