Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking today at the Wilson Center in D.C., delivered an address that was the reverse mirror image of his address to the Jerusalem Post conference in New York in April. The content of the speech was the same: Olmert argued that Israel’s security situation is better than ever before; that neither its traditional enemies (Syria, Egypt) nor its current enemies (Iran) pose a debilitating threat to it; and that it is therefore in an excellent position to make peace with the Palestinians. The reception, too, was the same: just like in New York, Olmert was repeatedly interrupted by angry hecklers in D.C. today. The only difference was that this time, he was taking heat from the left instead of the right.
Olmert was in the middle of discussing the threat of a nuclear Iran, and his hope that America will take the lead in neutralizing that threat, when a young audience member wearing a black Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) shirt called out, “I’m appalled that the Wilson Center would host a war criminal such as yourself. Be sure that the international community will hold you accountable for your war crimes.” He walked to the back of the room, where another young man unfurled a Palestinian flag and joined him in marching out. There was a small smattering of applause from the audience.
Olmert laughed off the disturbance, noting that he’s experienced much worse in the Knesset, and then continued to make the same argument he’d made in New York: that President Obama doesn’t want his legacy to be a nuclear Iran, and that when he, Secretary of Defense Hagel, and Secretary of State Kerry all say they will not allow that to become a reality, we have to take that commitment seriously. He added that the American leaders are “the ones that ought to lead this campaign against Iran.” And, expressing admiration for the Secretary of State’s “emotional involvement” in the peace process, Olmert said he hoped Kerry would be able to stir Obama to greater involvement “on a daily basis.”
But at that point, another young man in a SAIA shirt stood up to share some thoughts of his own—including “To hell with you! Free my people, free Palestine!”—before storming off. Once again, Olmert laughed, noting that this light-skinned heckler (unlike the first one) “doesn’t look like a Palestinian.”
This did not endear him to the crowd. Soon a female heckler shouted and marched off. She was followed by another young woman, who screamed, “Shame on Woodrow Wilson for inviting a war criminal! This is disgusting!” before leaving. The audience member beside her, whose T-shirt read “Olmert is a murderer,” cited the death toll in the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead, and shouted, “You’re a murderer! You talk about peace? You could have prevented this!” while being escorted out.
Ultimately, Wilson Center Director, President and CEO Jane Harman was forced to call for a tightening of security, and to defend the Center’s decision to invite a broad cross-section of speakers. “I also defend free speech in this country,” she noted. “But it is unfortunate that people feel the need to disrupt a gathering where they could peacefully and civilly ask questions.”
Whereas Harman seemed perturbed by the disturbances, Olmert cynically delighted in being called a war criminal. Referring to the hecklers, he said, “These guys made a mistake. They don’t understand that for me, in Israel, there couldn’t be any better PR than their comments… For many Israelis, this may restore some of my reputation."
But when Aaron David Miller moderated a question and answer period later on, Olmert turned from cynicism to earnestness, showcasing his moderate side. Asked about his September 2008 offer to Abbas, which recently became the subject of renewed press attention, Olmert clarified that the Palestinian president never said yes to the terms of his peace plan, but never said no, either. Olmert insisted that Abbas is a true partner for peace whose leadership can now help break the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, because the latter understands that any final deal between the two peoples will look a lot like the one Olmert presented. That deal, Olmert hastened to add, includes resolving the issue of Palestinian refugees within the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative, which has recently been revamped following talks between Kerry and the Arab League.
Asked about the issue of Jerusalem, Olmert suggested we should resist talk of “dividing” the holy city (he prefers the term "sharing"), as if granting Palestinians sovereignty over part of it would constitute a gross betrayal of age-old Jewish dreams. “The part of Jerusalem that the Palestinians are insisting on is not really part of what we thought of as Jerusalem for generations,” he stated. The upshot was that it’s not worth trying to maintain Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem neighborhoods that are mainly inhabited by Palestinians—and that are not of historical importance to Jews, anyway—if that effort would forever foreclose the possibility of peace.
Olmert’s stance on Jerusalem, like his broader attitude toward negotiating a peace deal with Abbas, hews closely to the stances of the Israeli and American Jewish left wing. Yet, as the disruptions at today’s event proved, Olmert is too right-wing for the left—and, as the disruptions at the Jerusalem Post conference proved, he is also too left-wing for the right. Today, Olmert convincingly argued that “this is possibly the last but also the best time that we have to make peace.” The great misfortune is that this man, who is moderate enough to recognize that and to be able to strike a deal, has neither the power nor the broad support—from either side of the political spectrum—to do so.