For a further glimpse into Israel’s likely new “first family,” read Bikel’s intimate companion interview with Olmert’s wife Aliza, who reveals a strong-willed and deeply private person struggling with the political spotlight. She talks about returning to her home the night they learn Ariel Sharon is in a coma. “Our home turned into a fortress. It had been covered with green cover sheets, lots of security, lots of media around it. I remember the first thing that entered my mind is that my shabby car was standing in front of the house and saying: “Well, this is not a car of the wife of a prime minister, we should take it to the garage tomorrow.”
Ofra Bikel: Mrs. Olmert, how are you doing?
Aliza Olmert: What do you mean, how am I doing as a wife of?
As a wife, as a personality?
You want the whole story. I was confronted with my new position just a few weeks ago. We were just having dinner with friends at a Moroccan restaurant in the center of Jerusalem when the security man called him out for an emergency telephone call. And when he comes back, I could see by his face that something very dramatic has happened. He told us that Sharon was hurried to the hospital and that he’s assuming responsibility.
As prime minister?
Yeah, as prime minister.
How did that strike you?
As a surprise I wasn’t ready for. We finished our dinner, and we went home. Actually, by the time we were eating dessert, our home turned into a fortress. It had been covered with green cover sheets, lots of security, lots of media around it. I remember the first thing that entered my mind is that my shabby car was standing in front of the house and saying: “Well, this is not a car of the wife of a prime minister, we should take it to the garage tomorrow.” In this country, because of security measures, everything is really so dramatic. We were following the news, and the telephones were ringing, and the red telephone was installed at home and many electric wires, many sounds I haven’t heard before. It was a physical manifestation of what’s going to happen. I couldn’t be blind to the changes any more. It’s there. It’s for real. So the first thing that came into my mind when we entered home was: “Bye-bye, freedom.”
Yes. Life is going to be much more constructed, and I’m going to adjust to something that is unclear to me at the moment too, but something is going to happen. I’ll have to do some thinking of how to reposition myself. I don’t have definite answers yet.
You are a very private person.
Yes, I am very private, and I think that my freedom is the most precious factor in my life. I’ve been fighting for that, and I treasure it, and I’m going to lose part of it.
In what way?
My freedom of speech is limited or contrived in one way or another. I’m not a private person anymore.
Is it any fun?
No, it’s not fun at all.
None of it?
None of it. It’s a new ballgame.
How similar was your background to that of your husband?
We come from completely different backgrounds. Ehud’s parents immigrated to Israel in the early 1930s with the idea that we have to be strong, our task is to found a place for the Jewish people to live in. Ehud was raised with the idea that part of the country that belongs to him, which is his territory, was taken by the Arabs, is still ruled by the Arabs, and one day it will be freed and given back to the Israelis -- by force, if necessary. So the attitude, the basic attitude, at Ehud’s home was nationalistic, it was a family of activists, national activists. My parents were Holocaust refugees; they came here in the late1940s; all they needed and all they wanted was a place to put their feet on. It was kind of a refuge -- a new place to escape to and to start a new life with the privilege of not being a minority anymore, of belonging somewhere. I cannot recall, in my childhood, any talks about the wholeness of Jerusalem or the longing for the tombs of our ancestors in the West Bank. I wasn’t actually conscious of the fact that Jerusalem was divided until my teens. Nothing was said about it, and it wasn’t on my mind. There was a very strong social consciousness, and it was a completely different climate, you know, in our homes. We come from very different climates.
What was important in your home?
In my home, you should be just. You couldn’t talk about bread and butter without having to be just about it. Everything should be fairly divided; you should take care of the underprivileged; you should be conscious about the fact that you have more than others; you have to be thankful for the little you have. Actually, we both come from what you would call, in today’s terms, poor families, but we didn’t feel poor because it was Israel in the1950s. When we grew up, this country was one big refugee camp. Very seldom did you meet someone who has more than you. It was taken for granted that the physical conditions were lousy, but the ideology and the desire to live for something, for a goal, were replacing it.
How did you meet and why did you get married?
What a question! We met at university, and we just fell in love. As simple as that. A boy meets a girl, a girl meets a boy, and that’s the whole story. You don’t talk ideology on those very special moments.
But you knew …
We knew that we came from different backgrounds, but what the heck?
And you agreed to disagree.
Yes, we agreed to disagree. One of Ehud’s privileges lies in the fact that I’m never sure that I’m right. I have my own way of thinking and doing things, but there’s always the benefit of the doubt. Whereas Ehud is absolutely sure that what he’s doing -- his thing -- is the only possible way.
What was it like when he was mayor of Jerusalem?
When he was mayor of Jerusalem it was the hardest time for us as a couple. The level of disagreement got impossible at the times. Ehud was affiliated with the more extreme segments of society at the time. He was supporting the settlers in East Jerusalem and the Silwan village, which I completely disagreed with.
I thought that the only way to coexist in Jerusalem would be through compromise and through respecting their [Palestinian] rights for proper housing and proper living conditions and respecting their rights over Jerusalem, which I don’t doubt.
Then he became mayor of Jerusalem.
Just listen to the speeches he was giving over the years that he was mayor of Jerusalem. They were nationalistic, with a very strong claim over ownership on Jerusalem. I couldn’t cope with this rhetoric.
Where were you when the incident of the tunnel happened? [Arabs were inflamed when Israelis opened an ancient tunnel in a sacred Arab area of Jerusalem.]
I remember we were sitting in a friend’s home. It was Friday night, and Ehud announced his participation in the opening of the tunnel, which I just couldn’t see the consequences; I completely disagreed with it.
Did you tell him?
Of course, I tell him. We were his friends, and everybody was telling him the same thing. But Ehud was very stubborn, very sure of himself.
What do you do, besides being a painter, artist, sculptor, writer …?
I’m chairing a few boards in the field of children at risk in Israel. One of the organizations I chair, called Or Shalom, is establishing and maintaining homes for kids who could not live with their natural parents. These are kids who’ve gone through abuse and very severe neglect, and we are trying to offer a present and a future to them.
So you are less global minded.
I never think globally. I’m a one-to-one person, and helping one child means a lot to me. I don’t think in global terms or in nationalistic terms. Helping one child at a time, you know, makes my day.
He alienated some of your friends when he was mayor of Jerusalem.
Yes, some of our friends turned their backs to us at the time, and it took 10 years to reconcile.
Why did they?
It so happens that some of our friends stick to the same ideas that I do, and they just couldn’t cope with the right-wing policy that Ehud at the time was executing in Jerusalem.
Does he think now about his feelings when he was mayor of Jerusalem?
I don’t know. You should ask him.
You’re a smart woman.
What could I have done? I was very open about my own thinking -- I just gave him all the arguments that were on my mind. You can’t do much more than that. I can’t hold him back.
When I asked you about the future once, you said you see a disaster.
Did I? Well, I strongly believe that negotiations, talking, empathy toward the other is the only recipe to come about. Nobody in this area is going to force anything on anybody. We are strong nationalistic countries. Nobody is going to force ownership or ideas about the other side. The only way is negotiations.
Does he understand it?
I think he changed a lot. I think that Ehud is fully aware of it now. I only pity he didn’t come to the same conclusion 30 years ago.
But you knew your husband was very political.
My husband has been in politics for the last 40 years, and he declared very openly that this is what he wants to be. So 40 years of climbing has reached its target.
But not the way he thought.
It’s never the way you think, I guess. It’s a configuration of so many factors, and in Ehud’s case, specifically, it was a combination of Netanyahu’s resignation, of Arik’s sickness, of the fact that he is not dependent on the Likud center anymore. All of the barriers collapsed at once, and here he is.
But that’s not your kind of life.
Well, this is the kind of life I’ll have to adjust to.
How close are you to the prime minister’s views?
I know you are going to ask it. No interview missed this point.
How did you manage your marriage like that? Did you ever vote for your husband?
I’m going to vote for him now. But it was perfectly OK with him when I didn’t vote for him. It was perfectly agreed between us that we are entitled to our own convictions.
What about the children?
Our four kids were sent to what we call in Israel “open schooling” from the very beginning. We did it intentionally because we wanted them to be free thinkers, not to be molded into the system, but to be questioning the system. So after you educate them to be themselves and to ask questions, they are entitled to their own outlook. You can’t argue with it. You have to respect it.
Your husband says he’s a minority.
He is a minority in the family, yes.
Does he mind?
I would imagine that agreeing or living in an agreeable environment is much easier, much more comforting, but that’s the way things are.
Do you have a lot of political discussions?
Yes, we do. We are a very opinionated family and our gatherings are, many times, shaded by bitter arguments.
Do you think that you’ve come together on politics or not exactly?
We came closer. I appreciate what Ehud went through and his new outlook, his new conclusions. His determination to execute it, to do things. I really trust him and admire him for what he’s doing at the moment.
Yeah, I’m just sorry that it happened so late. It should have been done long ago.
You said that disengagement is not the end of the road for you.
Disengagement is the first step toward a dialogue, and the dialogue is the most important issue between these two nations.
Does he believe that?
I think that Ehud believes in dialogue and he’s trying to push it.
Did you see the change, how it came about?
Well, it’s a configuration of so many factors along the years. Ehud was influenced by his friends. Actually, he has never had friends on the right. All of our personal friends somehow are around the center and the left. These are the personality types that he has chosen. And Ehud has been singled out in many discussions in this house, not only by his family, but his friends too. Reality has changed; politics has changed. They all finally came to the conclusion that fighting isn’t the only answer, and if there’s nobody to talk to -- which I’m not sure about -- at least you should play your own game … to disengage.
Who are your friends?
Who are our friends? Do you want a list of friends? Listen, we have a bunch of friends with which we go twice a year to a remote spot -- it could be outside of Israel it could be in Israel -- and we actually spend three days having breakfast that ends at lunch and lunch that ends at dinner and a dinner that ends at the middle of the night because we never stop talking. So even amongst the closest circle of friends, Ehud was a minority. Most of us think the same way. Gradually, I think he was either convinced by the arguments or he was influenced … it must make a change if your family and your friends keep pointing a finger on reality from a different angle.
It changed him.
Yes, it did. Besides that, a time factor is a very crucial one too. You know, how long can you try the same policies that don’t work? For how many years and with how many casualties, and what a high price in solidarity in this country, which is in such a need of solidarity? It’s too small and threatened and insecure to lose its solidarity. So, as I said before, things have accumulated and reached a point where he had to change his mind.
Did you see it coming?
Yeah, I saw it coming. It was gradual. And I saw it coming.
Does it make life easier for you?
I told you, it’s nicer to agree than to disagree. It makes it more welcoming and more cozy, and it’s a softer cushion.
But you still argue.
We don’t really argue, we point a finger at the still-existing differences. But basically, the main stream of thinking has come closer.
Will you be very disappointed if he loses the elections?
I wish he will win, get what he wants, what he always wanted. If it were for me, I would give it up. It’s been imposed on me in many ways, it’s not my choice. It’s tough.
Tell me more about the difficulties.
I was thinking there is no role model that I want to follow for “wives of Israeli prime ministers.” I feel different in many ways. I’m not very good at being passive -- I’m opinionated and I’m a doer. So I’m not going to wear a nice dress and follow my husband to the ceremony. It’s an opportunity that I want to leave up to me, if I’m there. I’m not sure about what I’ll do, but probably I’ll try and make a difference in some social aspects I’m involved with. I’ve been involved with children at risk for years. This is a territory that I’m acquainted with, so I might do something about that. I might do something about early age education in Israel, which has been neglected for years. I don’t know how to position myself, because I wasn’t nominated, I wasn’t elected. Nobody gave me a territory to function in, and it’s very delicate, but I’ll have to do some thinking and consulting and see what I can do.
You’ll have to get a lot of dresses …
You know me well enough to know that this is not my main concern. But I’ll have to live up to the status and the formalities as well.
Nothing seems like great fun.
No, it’s not great fun.
Visiting Aliza is not as easy as it used to be.
It’s a matter of degree. I’ve been with security for years because Ehud was a minister and mayor of Jerusalem. But it’s a matter of degree, of how many police people, security people, you have to go through in order to enter the house. It’s a matter of degree.
Does it bother you?
Yeah, it does bother me.
Tell me what you think.
If you are asking me about the way I see the situation, I think that the withdrawal is a practical move that has to be done and I’m really grateful for that. But the dialogue between the two tragic nations, the Palestinians and the Israelis, is the main issue, and this hasn’t started yet the way I want it to be. I think that the basis for the beginning of this dialogue is, first of all, a mutual acknowledgment of the wrong that has been done, because otherwise you start justifying yourself and not seeing the other. So this is an axiomatic factor that has to be taken into consideration as a basis for this dialogue.
The wrongs that have been done …
… To each other, the wrongs that we have done to each other. And this is still far away. There is a lot of self-righteousness and very little empathy toward the tragedy of the other. So only empathy could move it from the place it has been stuck.
How do you get empathy?
I don’t know.
Tell me about your voting record.
In the1970s, I voted for the Likud as a protest vote against the Labor government, who got more and more corrupted at the time. And ever since, I’ve voted for left parties, and this time I’m going to vote again for Ehud, for Kadima, with a positive attitude because I think that he’s going the right way.
Now you feel true to yourself.
I feel true to myself by voting for him, yes. And that’s why I do it.
What, if anything, bothers you about the coming election?
Israeli election campaign is very brutal. I’m expecting defamation, invasion of privacy, lying -- they will try and portray our family in a negative way in its past. We have exercised many times along the year a troubled way, troubled water. We are used to swimming troubled waters.
What do you miss most?
I miss my anonymity. I miss my spontaneity. I miss my freedom. I’m a very spontaneous person and quite creative and used to follow my heart and my interest, and it’s going to be more constructed and more demanding. What does it mean to be a wife of a prime minister in the eyes of others? I don’t know whether I’m going to deliver the goods -- and I need to.