Shaul, the eldest son of Aliza and Ehud Olmert, is now an executive at Nickelodeon TV in New York where he lives with his family. Shaul tells Ofra Bikel that he now laments the political embarrassment he has caused his father in the past, in particular his signature on a petition calling for Israeli soldiers to refuse to serve in the occupied territories, and says he grew up in an open and loving household. “My father wasn’t angry. First of all, it wasn’t a surprise to him. I mean, he knew what my stands are and he definitely disagreed with those stands and it was something we’ve always discussed. Our political debates internally were always pretty open and pretty free form. So I don’t remember my father being angry about it; he mainly felt guilty that I was put in the spotlight and in a situation that I didn’t want, just because I am his son."
What was it like growing up? Was your home politically divided?
We definitely had our share of political disagreements. I can’t say that the home was divided -- we agreed on some things and disagreed on others. My father always liked to say that on the most important things, meaning our favorite soccer team, there was always an agreement. When it came to politics, it wasn’t always the case.
Did you vote for him in the different elections?
We always voted for him when it came to any personal elections, notably when he ran for mayor of Jerusalem, twice -- so everybody in the family was behind him. When it came to the elections for parliaments, in most of the cases we disagreed about political views, and as a result, most of us voted for different parties.
What were your politics?
Well, similar to my mother and my siblings. I think we all were more to the left of the Israeli political map. Meaning that we were more liberal and more supportive of the peace process and specifically of liberating the -- I don’t know how to call them -- the questionable territories.
Why were you so different?
Where do I start? I think all of us realized earlier than my father did that the question of whether or not Israel should continue to hold these territories is not related to the historical question of whether or not we had the right and who started that war. It’s more of a practical question: Is it really possible to hold another population under occupation and is it justified? The approaches that my father is promoting right now -- his actions in the last few years as the deputy prime minister -- have been much along the lines of what we believed for several years before to be the right path.
Do you think the family influenced him?
I am tempted to say that we did, but honestly, I think it’s the process that my father went through and many other leaders on both sides of the political fence in Israel -- more of a global process that the majority of Israeli society has been through. The fact that they are getting so much support these days for the mainstream middle-of-the-road approach really reflects the changes or the recognition of people from both the right and the left of Israeli politics -- there has to be a middle ground. On one hand, you cannot completely assume that the partner you have for discussion on the other side is coming from the same approach as you do. On the other hand, there has to be a practical solution, and you don’t choose your enemies -- you have to deal with the ones that you have.
Tell me your story.
Soon after my release from the army, I became politically active in a number of left-wing organizations, and even though I didn’t think of starting my own political career and wasn’t interested in voicing my opinions in public, I did support these organizations by attending demonstrations. And, at some point, I signed a petition which called for IDF [Israel Defense Forces] reserve soldiers not to agree to serve in the Occupied Territories, assuming that our presence in those territories was not legitimate. I was pretty naïve, I guess, signing this petition, because I thought I’d be another name on the petition. I didn’t mean to make a public stand. I’m not embarrassed of my views, but I had no need and no desire to become the focus of public attention. Unfortunately, some other people who saw my name on this list thought otherwise, and it received a lot of attention in the Israeli media. So I was put in this situation where suddenly my political ideas became public knowledge and a topic for public discussion. But it was nothing but an embarrassment for me. It wasn’t anything that I initiated.
Was your father angry?
No, my father wasn’t angry. First of all, it wasn’t a surprise to him. I mean, he knew what my stands are and he definitely disagreed with those stands and it was something we’ve always discussed. Our political debates internally were always pretty open and pretty free form. So I don’t remember my father being angry about it; he mainly felt guilty that I was put in the spotlight and in a situation that I didn’t want, just because I am his son. So I think he felt more a father’s guilt than for the bad publicity or embarrassment it caused.
Was he tolerant?
In general, the discussions at home were very open about any topic, be it political or otherwise. So it was always very fruitful. The reality is that when you live in Israel, regardless of whether or not your father is a cabinet minister or mayor or whatever he was at the time, political issues are always part of the agenda.
But he was very hard line at one point.
He was and he wasn’t. People tend to forget that during the 1980s and the early 1990s, he was actually considered within the Likud as the more left-wing of the Likud. He often needed to explain to his political partners -- he was advocating for stands that were far off to the left than the mainstream of the party. He did this in the last couple of years and that’s the sort of change that eventually led to him leave that party.
When he was mayor of Jerusalem, he was responsible for the most sensitive spot in which he was very protective. So, advocating for the unity of Jerusalem drew him as more of a hawk than he actually was.
And you don’t think that he really is.
I don’t think that he really is. I think that he is a very open-minded person, and when people ask about the change he’s been through, I think it’s great when a political leader can reassess his stands in light of changing reality and say, “I advocated for many years for one direction, one type of solution, and I realize now that there may be a different solution that should take place.”
It’s odd for Americans that your opinions are different than your father’s.
Sure, and I think here as well; in Israel it definitely drew a lot of attention. It’s common knowledge. I bet if you ask people on the street about the Olmert family, a lot of them will know that there wasn’t always full agreement about political stands. But there was always a lot of support for my father personally within the household, which is probably more important. As you can see today, we all fully support his stand and are fully committed to helping him and trying to make his plans come alive.
It’s odd that all children …
Sure, I think, you know, I think my father is paying the price for being a liberal person. It kind of reminds me of this movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, this movie in which two parents raised their daughter to be very liberal and very open-minded and one day she comes home from college and brings her new boyfriend and they find out that he’s an African American and they are trying to be very liberal and politically correct about it, but they’re also kind of stunned by their daughter’s choice. So I guess that my father was in a similar sort of internal debate throughout our childhood because we definitely used the freedom that we were granted and the encouragement to think for ourselves and develop our own views, and we developed our own views, which happen not to coincide with his.
Today we’re pretty much supportive. I can’t speak on their behalf and say exactly what are they going to vote come elections time, but, you know, I don’t think it necessarily matters. As opposed to the U.S. governmental system, here the elections are not between two choices. It’s not right or wrong, either you’re in or you’re out -- there are many variants. So it’s only natural that not all of us will necessarily fall into the same bucket, but there’s definitely a very genuine and very cumulative support.
It must be a relief for him.
I don’t think that during the time that we supported opposite stands that he felt attacked at home or that he felt any discomfort at home. Home, as you know, is not only a place for political debate. We’re talking about other things, doing other things together. So those differences were not the only thing that set the tone around the house. But, definitely, I can imagine that the support of his loved ones is a crucial thing, and I’m very happy that we’re all in the same boat now.
Did your parents have a lot of political discussions?
We did. As I said, Israel is a place in which you cannot avoid political discussions and that’s regardless of what your father’s occupation is. So definitely there were political discussions alongside other discussions. You know, which restaurant to go to, whether or not we should move to a new house, what is the destination of our next vacation -- all sorts of topics that most people discuss.
Were there fights?
Nothing dramatic. I know that a lot of people would expect or would want to hear some dirt coming out, but there wasn’t anything substantial. Really. There were definitely discussions, definitely disagreements, and there was pretty fruitful dialogue.
Was it a nice home life?
It was a very nice home life. We were a very happy family. The life in Israel always has challenges that come along with it, but I don’t think that our family life was any different than any other family’s life.
Was he a good dad?
My father is a very good father, and today he’s a very good friend to me. Now that I live outside the house and I have my own family, obviously the relationship is much, much different. His work has always been a priority, and obviously, as a younger child, it wasn’t always easy for me to accept. But I guess, as part of this dialogue that I’m talking about that we touched on in regards to political debates, there was also a relationship dialogue. Throughout time, both of us learned to accept each other as they are. I learned that he will always be devoted to his work and that there will always be other things in his life that are important, beyond his family; learning and accepting that definitely made things easier.
Yeah, football, or as the Americans call it, soccer, always was and always will be the most important topic of discussion at home, and there we have full compliance. We are also supportive of the exact same soccer club.
Where were you when you found out that the prime minister had a stroke?
I was at my office when I first heard the news about Mr. Sharon’s hospitalization. I’ll be honest, the first thought that came to my mind is: “OK, how does that reflect on my father and where is he now? How is he accepting the news?” I called him the same night. He was very concerned and very nervous, and I think more than everything, he has a very close personal relationship with Sharon. I think more than everything, more than the implications of his political career and the type of responsibility he was granted that night, he was just really genuinely concerned about the good health of his friend. And I was frankly quite surprised. I thought that living in New York, in an environment where the politics of Israel are not on top of people’s agenda, I didn’t even think that anybody around me knows what my father does. I mean, growing up in Israel, the name Olmert is very well-known, and it was almost impossible to not associate us with our father. Living in the United States, I don’t run into that too often. I sometimes do, but definitely since my father’s recent promotion, the name Olmert is more recognized. I get a lot more feedback than I used to before.
How do you feel about that?
You mean about him being prime minister specifically or about the association?
Well, now he’s the acting prime minister, but he may become prime minister.
My father being the prime minister did not come out of nowhere. It was a natural evolution that we were always aware that one day may mature, as it did. I can’t say that it changes anything, because all of the different aspects of being the son of the prime minister are things that I’ve grown up with. It doesn’t really matter if he’s the mayor of Jerusalem or the deputy prime minister or the prime minister for that matter. It escalates some things; the security around him is tighter, his availability is shorter, the level of attention he’s getting is higher, but I don’t think there was any substantial qualitative change.
And you don’t expect one.
My father and my mother’s lives have definitely changed significantly since he assumed the role of the prime minister. For us, their children, who now live separately and are much more busy running their own households, it has less of a practical effect. I don’t feel any change. People keep asking me, “Are you going to be assigned a security detail right now? Are you going to go back to Israel ultimately because your father is the prime minister?” And the answer to all of that is no. We’re continuing with our lives the way they were. We’re very happy for our father, but that doesn’t change anything.
It’s harder on your mother.
Yeah, I think it is. It’s something that was always in the back of my mother’s mind, that one day he may be prime minister, which will elevate all of the things she is not 100 percent comfortable with about their mutual life. But I guess she’s ready for that. It’s one of the things that may take some time to get used to. But I don’t think it will be the first thing that my mother thinks about when she wakes up in the morning.
What do you mean?
I mean that when my mom wakes up in the morning or when I wake up in the morning, we think about our own life and what’s ahead for us the same day. We don’t necessarily think of what is the agenda for the next government meeting of the same morning. Definitely, the change, the recent appointment to the role of prime minister brings it more to our attention, but by the time we get used to it, we’ll just live our own life and worry about our own things.
Does your father have to sacrifice going to soccer games now?
The new role definitely imposes a lot of restrictions on my father’s day-to-day life and probably the most significant one is the fact that he is no longer able to attend the local soccer matches that he’s been attending pretty regularly for the last 30 years. If you ask my father about being a prime minister, he’ll definitely complain a little about the fact that he can no longer go to soccer matches, but all things considered, I think he’s still considering it a pretty good deal.