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The Olmert Affair And Unforeseen Events

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced this week to six years in jail for accepting bribes during his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem in what a judge in 2010 described as “one of the worst corruption affairs in Israeli history.”

Mr. Olmert was convicted of taking money to ease the way for the development of the widely unpopular Holyland apartment complex in southern Jerusalem, and at his sentencing this week Judge David Rozen characterized Mr. Olmert’s actions as part of a culture of corruption in Israel that “must be uprooted.”

We can’t help but note an intriguing political aspect to the Olmert story beyond the pervasive illegality it points to.

When accusations of bribery against Mr. Olmert first surfaced in 2009, he promptly announced he would resign the office of prime minister, which he’d assumed in 2006. At the time of his resignation he was deeply involved in negotiations with the Palestinians and reportedly was offering, among other concessions, to relinquish Israeli control of Jerusalem’s Old City and nearby areas and surrender large swaths of settlement areas beyond the Green Line.

Typically, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would not go along even with those far-reaching offers. Mr. Olmert’s successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, abandoned key parts of Mr. Olmert’s plan, much to the consternation of Mr. Abbas, who’d envisioned the Olmert concessions as a floor rather than a ceiling for future negotiations.

Mr. Olmert apparently had no problem with Mr. Abbas’s intransigence and in fact acknowledged in 2011 that he’d been very close to a deal with Mr. Abbas when he found himself engulfed by the burgeoning scandal on the home front.

There is an interesting parallel here with the timing and details of another political scandal. In January 1998 President Bill Clinton was in the midst of a major effort to revive the foundering peace process based on the 1993 Oslo Accords. Both PA Chairman Yasir Arafat and Prime Minister Netanyahu were in Washington late that month for meetings with U.S. officials. The Clinton administration was prepared to ratchet up the pressure on Israel to make significant withdrawals from the West Bank and cease further settlement construction.

President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made no effort to hide their frustration with Mr. Netanyahu. In fact, the Israeli prime minister was denied the traditional lunch and joint news conference at the White House.

Mr. Clinton reportedly came down hard on Prime Minister Netanyahu at their meeting, as had been expected. But that meeting took place just before news broke of President Clinton’s relationship with young White House intern Monica Lewinsky. That story quickly overshadowed Mr. Clinton’s meetings with Messrs. Netanyahu and Arafat. Suddenly the president had a lot more than Middle East politics to occupy his attention.

Once again unforeseen events made mockery of the plans of men. Coincidence? We’ll leave that for our readers to decide.

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