JERUSALEM – In a normal year, an address by the Israeli prime minster would be treated as the centerpiece of a gathering of American Jews, especially one being held in Jerusalem. But the context of Ehud Olmert’s appearance at the opening plenary of the United Jewish Communities General Assembly on Sunday was anything but normal.
Olmert, who will leave office after his successor is elected Feb. 10, is stepping down in disgrace.
The subject of intense scrutiny over his financial dealings during his term in office, he announced his resignation this summer after American businessman and philanthropist Morris Talansky agreed to testify in a case involving allegations that Olmert accepted bribes from foreign donors and mishandled nonprofit money.
So on Sunday night, an Israeli prime minister forced to resign over money received from a wealthy American donor was delivering a farewell address of sorts to thousands of wealthy American donors.
For his part, Olmert treated the speech to more than 3,000 lay leaders and professional staff of the North American Jewish federation system as if it was a typical goodbye.
“Although this is, most likely, my last appearance before this distinguished crowd as prime minister of Israel, this is by no means a goodbye,” Olmert said. “I am certain we will continue to meet and discuss all the important issues that affect Israel’s future, that affect our joint future, the future of the Jews across the world and the future of us here in the State of Israel.”
Olmert went on to say that the world cannot allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons and that he would continue to push for peace with the Palestinians and Syria in his remaining days as prime minister.
“Peace with our neighbors we leave to our children,” he said. “It is within reach.”
Though Olmert appeared committed to leaving on a positive note, he clearly was not at his best Sunday.
The departing prime minister mistakenly referred to the yearly General Assembly as “the biannual General Assembly meeting.” Olmert also flubbed the G.A.’s tag line, “One People, One Destiny,” saying, “This year the G.A. is focused on the young generation of the Jewish people under the title ‘One People, One Destination.’ I cannot imagine a more important issue confronting our people at this time.”
And he committed something of a nonprofit faux pas, offering up what seemed to be veiled endorsements for two top federation system officials who reportedly are planning to run for office with Olmert’s Kadima Party: Ze’ev Bielski, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and World Zionist Organization executive, and Nachman Shai, the head of UJC operations in Israel.
In his opening remarks, Olmert thanked several officials at UJC and its overseas partners, the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, before singling out Bielski and Shai for added praise. Shai is leaving the UJC after the General Assembly, and it has been reported that Bielski is not far behind.
Olmert, who according to several sources received a cool reception from top federation donors at a banquet before his speech, led off the assembly, but the candidates vying to succeed him were scheduled to speak later in the conference. Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party spoke at a plenary Monday, and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Kadima were scheduled to speak Wednesday. Livni was to be the last of the three to speak on the G.A.’s final day.
Following his remarks, Olmert received respectful applause.
“One of the great things about democracy is that leaders come and go, or their terms end or they get voted out of office, so it is not unusual for a political leader to speak to a Jewish audience or any audience as a lame duck on their way out,” said William Daroff, the director of the UJC’s Washington office. “It is part of the dynamic. You want to walk with people as they are building up their careers and you want to walk with them as they flourish or as they don’t flourish.”
Steve Morrison, a delegate who made the trip from Madison, Wis., agreed.
“This will be the last time he speaks to a G.A. as a prime minister, so it is an historic moment,” Morrison said. “He won’t be the PM when we meet next time in Jerusalem in five years. He is the prime minister of Israel, so you give him respect.
“I remember when I was one of these young people here in attendance tonight, I was able to be in an audience to hear Lyndon Johnson speak, who I detested. It was the end of his presidency and he announced he wouldn’t seek office. But even in my young 20s, and I disagreed with him, he was still the president.”