Ehud Olmert, who was elected three years ago as prime minister of Israel, will be remembered here as someone with an unprecedented and unique ability to combine peaceful and positive rhetoric with hostile and aggressive action vis-a-vis the Palestinians and Arabs in general.
A veteran supporter of the "greater Israel" ideology, Olmert nevertheless declared his intention to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and allow for the emergence of a Palestinian state after he was elected prime minister. In practical terms, however, he proved to be among those who did the most on the ground to prevent the possibility of two states ever emerging.
In spite of his rhetorical departure from Ariel Sharon’s unilateral approach, in practice Olmert continued his predecessor’s policy. He exacerbated the division, both geographic and political, between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by restricting the movement of Palestinians between the two areas of their future state and later by putting Gaza under a siege to de-link it from the West Bank and link it instead to Egypt. In parallel, he continued consolidating Israeli control over most of the West Bank with as unswerving a commitment to wholesale settlement expansion as the Palestinian territories have ever witnessed.
Sharon’s open and Olmert’s unspoken commitment to a unilateral strategy that disintegrated the Palestinian territories and advocated consistent and aggressive settlement expansion in addition to the building of the wall have ensured that the prospect of a Palestinian state is more distant than ever. At times, Olmert pursued this strategy in the face of international criticism, e.g., in the case of occupied East Jerusalem, where there has been an increase in the expropriation of Palestinian land for settlement construction and infrastructure in an aggressive attempt to change the reality on the ground.
Even the Annapolis conference and process, which Olmert encouraged US President George W. Bush to launch and pursue and which provided him with endless opportunities to fill the airwaves with optimistic statements, was only used to undermine Olmert’s counterpart on the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas. The latter’s status was consistently degraded when every meeting of the two leaders or their negotiating teams was accompanied or preceded by news of further settlement activity on occupied territory. This not only undermined the possibility of a two-state solution but isolated a Palestinian leadership committed to such an outcome and contributed to the shift in the balance of power in favor of the opposition led by Hamas.
Olmert’s three years in power also witnessed two devastating wars, in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008 -2009. Whatever the Israeli justifications for these wars, they both failed to achieve any of the stated political and military objectives and both constituted some of the most brutal violations of civilian rights in those places, inflicting a gross number of civilian casualties and suffering as well as damage to civilian infrastructure.
Olmert probably got away with the many contradictions between his rhetoric and actions because of the presence of an extremely biased American president. President Bush managed to confuse the terrorist organizations responsible for the September 11 attacks on the US–who were roundly condemned by everyone, including in the Arab and Muslim world–with the legitimate struggle of the Palestinian people to end the illegal and belligerent military occupation of their homeland. As a result he was exploited fully by the Israeli leaders present during his term in office, Sharon and Olmert.
Palestinians, in spite of the victory of the rightwing bloc in the last Israeli elections, are hopeful that the failure of Olmert’s policies combined with the change in Washington will see some lessons be drawn. These should include practical movement toward the creation of a Palestinian state and an end to the Israeli occupation in accordance with the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council and international legality. Such movement will require, before anything else, a complete cessation of Israeli settlement activity in occupied territory and must be followed by the withdrawal of the Israeli army and settlers.
Only then can a Palestinian state emerge to live in peace and prosperity alongside Israel.