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.