Ehud Olmert: a Profile in Leadership

I met Ehud Olmert, the newly named acting prime minister of Israel, in June at Richard Gere's home in New York. I was scheduled to MC a dinner held by the Israel Policy Forum the next night at which Olmert was to be the keynote speaker.

The off-the-record conversation centered on the imminent withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. It was clear that Olmert's Nixon-goes-to-China embrace of unilateral disengagement was not born of an attempt to test the political waters for Ariel Sharon -- as some have alleged -- but out of a deep conviction that this was the only way for Israel to achieve security and a lasting peace.

He recounted the moment when he went public with his plan for withdrawal. It was November 2003. He received a call very early in the morning from Sharon, who had the flu. The prime minister asked Olmert to take his place and speak at a ceremony honoring the 30th anniversary of the death of Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion. Olmert decided this would be the perfect opportunity for him to raise the idea of unilateral disengagement -- which he did, setting in motion the seismic political shift that culminated with this August's pullout.

Unlike so many of our political class, Olmert is able to maintain two competing thoughts at the same time: that withdrawing from land captured in the 1967 war would be both really, really, really painful, and really, really, really necessary.

As he put it the next night, at the IPF dinner: "We are tired of fighting. We are tired of being courageous. We are tired of winning. We are tired of defeating our enemies. We want that we will be able to live in an entirely different environment of relations with our enemies. We want them to be our friends, our partners, our good neighbors. And I believe that this is not impossible."

Whether in the small setting of Gere's living room in his shirtsleeves or at the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in his dark suit, Olmert is a brilliant, passionate speaker with a mischievous sense of humor. Using no notes, he addressed the IPF with clarity and absolute conviction about what he termed "perhaps the most serious internal crisis that the State of Israel" had experienced in its 58 year history. "We are prepared to take the first risk," he said. "We are prepared to risk the existence of this government, the majority that we have in the Knesset, the stability of our political party, in order to break through so that this reality will not be hypothetical but will indeed be part of our lives. Everything depends on the success of this disengagement."

That kind of fearlessness is the hallmark of Olmert's brand of leadership. Indeed, the disengagement came at the price of the Likud Party's stability -- with Sharon and Olmert eventually leaving Likud to form the Kadima party (a move he blogged about for HuffPost).

Another hallmark of leadership is the ability to change course when staying the course has proven to be the wrong path (sound unlike anyone you know?).

"I voted against Menachem Begin," Olmert, who had objected to the Camp David Peace Accords, has said. "I told him it was a historic mistake, how dangerous it would be, and so on and so on. Now I am sorry he is not alive for me to be able to publicly recognize his wisdom and my mistake. He was right and I was wrong. Thank God we pulled out of the Sinai."

As Jonathan Jacoby, the executive director of the Israel Policy Forum told me: "Olmert is the ideal person for this moment in Israel's history. Because he's both extremely experienced and extremely pragmatic. If something doesn't work, it doesn't matter how much it fits into his ideological belief system -- if it doesn't work, it's not good for Israel. He's come around to the position that what Israelis need to think about right now is one thing: what's going to end this conflict? As opposed to the dreams that have kept the ideology alive but aren't going to help keep Israel alive."

Fearless, pragmatic, willing to risk his and his party's political future to do the right thing for his country. Maybe in his spare time, he can offer a course in political leadership to both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.