On the night Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke and was rushed to a hospital, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his wife Aliza were dining at a Moroccan restaurant in Jerusalem.
“I got a telephone call through my security guards,” Olmert tells FRONTLINE/World producer and correspondent Ofra Bikel. “I could see by his face, that something very dramatic has happened,” recalls Aliza.
At the hospital, doctors decided they must put Sharon under anaesthesia and operate immediately. Politically, a transfer of authority would have to be made.
“At about 11:15 I think it was, I got a telephone call from the secretary of the cabinet and he told me: ‘Mr. Olmert, I have the Attorney General on the line and this call is taped.’ Of course, that was the sign that this is official and formal and this is a constitutional act. And he said that the authorities of Prime Minister are bestowed upon me immediately.”
“What did you feel?” asks Bikel.
“I hoped that I'd wake up in the morning and I'll be the minister of finance and that will be it,” replies Olmert.
TV news crews immediately surrounded his home, while security officials turned the house into a fortress. Aliza Olmert knew her world would never be the same: “I said to myself, “Bye bye freedom.”
Olmert had long dreamed of becoming Israel’s leader, but the sudden and unexpected turn of events was unsettling. Now he would be campaigning in the March 28th election as an incumbent.
“The whole political map has radically changed,” says Bikel. Last summer, under orders from then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, 1,700 Jewish settlers were evacuated from their homes in Gaza and the territory was handed back to the Palestinians. “No one was hurt, the earth didn’t move,” notes Bikel, “but a huge myth was shattered.” It was indeed possible to withdraw without creating a crisis in Israel.
“Israeli public opinion has become much more moderate, much more centrist,” says Professor Amnon Rubinstein. Journalist Shimon Shiffer adds that most Israelis have come to accept the idea “that we have to give up the dream of having all the territories, what we call Erez Israel, and we have to live in more modest borders, permanent borders, and to let the other side, the Palestinians, live their lives.”
Although Israeli public opinion supported Sharon’s plans for “unilateral withdrawal,” the rightwing of his Likud party did not. So, Sharon left last fall, taking Olmert with him, and they founded a new party, Kadima. When Sharon fell into a coma, Olmert found himself in power at a historic moment.
Olmert has made a long political journey. Raised in a small ultra-nationalist community, Olmert grew up with three brothers in an aggressive, competitive environment. His father became a member of parliament representing the rightwing Herut, and Olmert followed suit. After serving in the Knesset, he became a government minister and then the elected mayor of Jerusalem.
“This was actually our most difficult time as a couple,” his wife Aliza tells Bikel, who is an old friend. “When Ehud was a mayor, because it’s not only thinking differently but he was a doer, he was actually creating realities that I didn’t agree with.”
Aliza Olmert always has had her own life -- a mother of four, an artist, a playwright and a social worker helping neglected children. Her parents were Holocaust survivors who came to Israel with her in 1949. She’s always been on the left politically, while her husband has been on the right.
One of their biggest disagreements came in 1996 when Olmert, as mayor of Jerusalem, and rightwing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to open a closed tunnel in Jerusalem. Arabs considered this a desecration of holy Muslim sites. Family friends warned Olmert that he would provoke bloodshed. Indeed, rioting followed, and as Israeli soldiers moved in, 80 people died.
“It became a very well known fact in Israel that in the Olmert residence practically everyone beside my father is a left winger,” says Shaul Olmert, the third child and first son.
The Olmert family gathers for Friday dinner with children and grandchildren. One daughter, Dana, an editor studying for her PhD, and her partner Duffy are both involved in leftist politics. Michal, a psychologist, is a moderate but still far from the rightwing politics her father used to represent. Shaul actually signed a petition calling for Israeli reserve soldiers to refuse to serve in the occupied territories.
“No, my father wasn’t angry,” insists Shaul.
“What's the big deal?” asks Olmert. “They are entitled to have their different opinions. We really live in a very open environment in the family, where everyone is entitled to have his own position and that's fine with us.”
In the past, Olmert’s wife and children did not vote for him, but now that he’s changed politically, Aliza says she will cast her ballot for her husband on March 28.
“I now reflect the consensus of the family,” says Olmert.
His public conversion came in 2003 when Olmert gave a speech calling for unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories. Aliza says her husband’s politics had been evolving for some time under the influence of his family and friends.
Olmert tells FRONTLINE/World: “I have reached a conclusion that when we have to make a choice between greater Israel or a Jewish democratic state -- and we have to make this choice, it is inevitable -- then my choice is a Jewish democratic country and that means that we will never be able to keep all of the territories and we have to compromise on land.”
Polls show that a majority of Israelis agree with Olmert, but if elected prime minister he will have to deal with intense opposition on at least two fronts.
“I'll be very blunt,” says journalist Shimon Shifer. “Ehud Olmert is going to face a Jewish Hamas and a Palestinian Hamas.” Shiffer says that extremist Israeli settlers and the radical Palestinian group both think they are getting their orders from God, a dangerous situation.
Olmert’s first test in confronting militant Jewish settlers was his decision to use force as a last resort to dismantle an unauthorized outpost in the West Bank known as Amona. A battle between settlers and police led to many injuries. But there would be no more attempted evacuations before the election.
As prime minister, Olmert will also have to contend with Hamas, which won an unexpected victory in Palestinian elections in January 2006. All the major candidates in the Israeli election concur that Hamas is unacceptable, as long as it continues to advocate the destruction of the Jewish state.
“Hamas is a fundamentalist, extremist, terrorist organization,” says Olmert, “whose whole nature is against everything that we believe in, that we can live with, that any of the western civilizations can live with.”
But as he campaigns on a platform of withdrawing from most of the West Bank, except for major settlements around Jerusalem, Olmert, the onetime rightwinger, finds himself in tune with the electorate and closer to the political views of his own family.
“Yes, I have changed my opinions about some fundamental issues of our lives and I'm proud of it,” Olmert tells Bikel. “Life is changing, the realities are changing…And I want to be in a position that I dictate the permanent solution rather than react to something that comes from the outside. I want to lead, I want to change, I want to dictate and I'm going to do it.”
Produced, Directed and Reported by
Asher Ben Yair Ilan
Music During Dinner
Ehud Banai – “Hayom” (“Today”)
Lyrics and music- Ehud Banai
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San Francisco, CA
I was struck by the openness of the Olmert family. I have never seen the family of a sitting US president make themselves available for such a far reaching and open interview. Democracy still exists in some parts of the world in more than name alone.
San Francisco, CA
The story of the Olmert family is one of modern Israel. An idea that started out as one of hope, peace and co-existence, slowly began to be diluted and co-opted by different factions. It seems to me that all the people of Israel, of all religious and non-religious denominations, seek the same thing - peace. That's why so many now live here in the Bay Area, far from the conflict zone. I hope through them we can understand that this conflict has no winners, only losers and what is needed is a third way, the sort that the now famous Arafat-Rabin handshake on the White House lawn gave us hope for. I don't believe I look in vain.
Santa Barbara, CA
Tod: When will Israel recognize the democraticically elected Hamas?
Do you think Mr. Olmert's family is still as tolerant after the ceasefire in Lebanon? He now has to deal with Jewish Hamas, Hamas and Hezbollah. Does he undermine his country or unite it?
FOR 503 The focus on Palestinian issues and viewpoints tends to obscure the fact that the Arab world and the Palestinians are largely responsible for the Palestinian plight.
It is they who, staring in 1948, repeatedly tried to destroy Israel. When outright military attacks failed, they turned to political methods. In this sense, Hamas is at least more honest than Fatah: it openly says what Fatah was teaching in its schools (while mouthing coexistence to the West).
The key contrast is the policies taken by Israel and the Arab world towards refugees. Roughly half of all Israelis are descendants of the roughly 850 000 Jews who fled, or were expelled from Arab lands. Israel absorbed, and uplifted them - with tiny territorial resources and no oil. The Jewish refugees from Iraq, Algeria, Yemen... started afresh and rebuilt their lives. They did not turn to terror.
In contrast, most of the Arab world still keeps stateless the descendants of a similar number of Arab refugees. This was true even when they had Gaza and the West Bank until 1967. And it remains true today, even with the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The refugee issue is seen as a key tool in the de-ligitimization and destruction of Israel.
The Hamas victory has reminded the world of the bottom line: it is not Palestinian rights that rankles the pride of the Arab world. It is the existence of a tiny Jewish state, in which Jews exercise self determination, and are not dummies. Israeli territorial concessions such as those offered in 2000 at Camp David, or the Gaza withdrawal, or even to the indefensible 1967 boundaries, will not bring peace. For most of the Arab world does not want to acknowledge Israel as a permanent entity, no matter how small.
The ideal of a two state solution will not have any hope of attainment until there is education for peace, not for the destruction of Israel.
Castle Rock, CO
FOR503 I just discovered Frontline. Excellent. Best programming on television I've seen. Thank you.
Highland Park, IL
FOR503 Dear Frontline/World, tonight's 3 stories were absolutely superb. You do great work and I only regret that you do not broadcast more often. I wouldn't mind if there were an entire "Frontline/World" format TV channel.
West Vancouver, BC
FOR 503 I have just read this on the site: "She asked them how a government now led by an Islamist party with a notorious terrorist wing can lead the Palestinian people, and in particular, where it leaves the prospects for peace with Israel." Perhaps look to Israel (but Olmert may have changed things) b/c Likud was working toward Greater Israel (shoving the Palestinians over the Jordan River) with expansion and suppression facilitated by the 'notorious' Israeli Defense Force (with the most modern of military equipment supplied by US).
FOR503 Very well done, considering the short time available on the air. The filmmaker could build up the suspense between the competitors until the final "hammer" fell deciding the winner using very special sensitivity to the subject, real finesse. Chopin himself, besides Rafal, is the big winner as his piano concerto goes under the skin by its own merit. Congratulations to Frontline for the smart choice.
FOR 503 I found your story to be biased tilted towards Israeli side. The wall is illegal but you never mentioned that, Israelis unilateral steps are bad move on its very basis and will never achieve peace, you never mentioned that, in fact you never even said anything that after they bombed the car and innocent by standers dies, you never bothered to mention that as death of civilians but were way fast to mention the death of 9 Israeli civilians in suicide bombing. And I found some very amateurish mistakes. Firstly Hamas is not the first Arab country to have "Islamists" win democratically. The Algerians were the first one where after the Islamists came into power democratically the army took over. Secondly in my view, its the hypocrisy of democracy that the world doesn't except the democratically elected leaders regardless of who they are.
FOR503 Really great series tonight Frontline/World! Good, hard questions were asked to the Hamas leadership about what they'll do to make the most of their democratic victory. Unfortunately, the Hamas leaders kept giving the same answer over and over again, if Hamas fails and the in-house terror continues it's somehow America's and Israel's fault. Hard to believe Hamas is making Fatah look competent, but they are.
Saint Paul, MN
FOR 503 Once again, Frontline has portrayed the Palestinian situation devoid of the historical context of Israeli occupation, a form of colonialism that has meant more and more annexation of Palestinian land in the form of ethnic cleansing, expansion, home demolitions, illegal settlements, and an apartheid wall that encroaches upon more than a third of Palestinian land. Seelye intentionally failed to inform her audience of how Fattah was never able to deliver a free state to the people because Israel, not the Palestinian Authority, did not keep its promises of the so-called peace treaties. Since Oslo, more than 450 thousand Israelis inhabit Palestine. Since Oslo, Palestinians have lived under some of the most oppressive forms of collective punishment, in the form of hundreds of checkpoints, illegal detentions, and a slew of repressive laws. Is this the Israel that the US and the EU want Hamas to recognize? How does an occupied, oppressed people recognize an occupier nation? Why should they? Maybe when the international community demands that Israel uphold the laws of the United Nations and abandon its occupation of Palestine by returning to the 1967 borders will Hamas have a true partner to negotiate with.
FOR 503 This is another "Fox News" report, this time coming from the Frontline World. Nothing about occupation; nothing about human dignity. If you are not a paid propaganda program, I will give you the title for your next report: "Palestine - the 21st century Warsaw and Lords Ghettos" and this time try to explain to the viewers why those whose history was of oppression "did not care that they themselves had become oppressors."
Ann Arbor, MI
Thank you for letting Hamas speak in their own words. Maybe people will finally understand how horrifyingly violent this group is and that they will not compromise.
Rapid City, SD
FOR503 The story on Hamas tonight was the worst one you've ever done. Normally I like Frontline, but the reporter Kate Seelye was obviously biased against Palestinians and pro-Israel. Stupid.
fountain inn, sc
FOR 503 One minute I was watching the inner workings of Hamas, the next minute I'm watching the Chopin piano competition in Poland and now something about a combination merry-go-round water pump in africa. I thought the whole show was to be on Hamas. Was I wrong?~wcl
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Welcome to FRONTLINE/World, where we always feature a mix of two to three "stories from a small planet." We are an international news magazine. This is what distinguishes us from our host series, FRONTLINE. Sometimes newspaper or station listings only mention our lead story, in this case "Inside Hamas." But whenever you see the name FRONTLINE/World, you can expect an eclectic mix of several stories.
We have been part of FRONTLINE since 2002 and the episode you watched was our 20th. We generally air 4-5 times a season. You can watch all our past TV stories on our Web site, as well as videos done expressly for the Web.
FOR 503 Where is the Israeli side to this story? I'll watch it tonight, and if Israel appears as the villain, stealing Palestinian Land, impoverishing the Palestinians by protecting Israeli citizens, being blamed for the plight of the Palestinian "refugees" - then once again I'll stop supporting PBS.
No matter what we are all thinking or saying, the consensus of 1.2 billion Muslims will remain unchanged for the next 500 years. They say that the only peaceful solution is that the Israeli Jews immigrate to those countries that accept them. A Jewish sovereignty between Gibraltar and the Persian Gulf isn't in their agenda.
One should note that none of Olmerts' children live in Israel. They are safe and warm while others struggle to live here and soldiers put their lives on the line to defend the Jewish state which sadly includes Olmert and his family.
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
As reported in the story, all the Olmert children completed their military service. And like many Israelis, they are studying and working abroad.
This story highlights the difference between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I couldn't help but like a guy who stood up for realities on the ground that contradicted every belief he was brought up with. The fact that he and his family are so open and diverse testify to the underlying will to openly and transparently deal with such issues in Israel as a whole, the only truly free and democratic society in a sea of cynically tyrannical and fundamentalist Moslem nations...I daresay that such a paucity of open thought will further doom Palestinians into a continuing vortex of ignorance and fundamentalism. I hope Israel and Olmert prevail.
In the paragraph below you say that that Arab forces were rebuffed by Israeli and "U.S. troops". This may be an error. Please explain how US forces participated in the 1973 war as combatants. In 1973, Egypt and Syria joined in a war against Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, in an effort to regain the territories lost in 1967. After several weeks of fighting, Arab forces were rebuffed by Israeli and U.S. troops.
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
You are correct. This was an editing error. Of course, no U.S. troops were involved in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The U.S. did re-supply Israel with arms during the fighting, and U.S. troops worldwide were put on alert as U.S.-Soviet Cold War tensions increased at the time since Moscow was supplying the Egyptian and Syrian forces.
I am the editor of Israpundit.com/2006. I was invited to view this article and couldn't help but notice your description of "Israel's turbulent history." It had so many inaccuracies I decided to critique it...
(Mr. Belman's critique linked to below.)
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
(Click here to view Mr. Belman's critique.)
Virtually every detail of Mideast history is fraught with contention and clashing points of view, which is why we have provided a variety of facts and links to accompany our story about Ehud Olmert, including a link to this gentleman's web site. We try to provide a range of opinion as background, to supplement our broadcast report, which everyone can now view online.
Olmert and his family made reference to each of the Hammas, Jewish and Palastinian, as saying they were getting their "orders" from God. At the end of his comments, Olmert says he wants to "dictate" and he is going to do that. Scary! Where is the democracy?
This story gives me hope.
San Francisco, CA
The story of Olmert's family saddened me, as it was a very accurate depiction of the insufferably arrogant (to the point of often being anti-democratic) Jewish left (the Israeli version is about the same as the Diaspora left). As for those who believe Aliza Olmert will help establish a Palestinian state, no such state will be created until the Palestinians recognize the right of Jews to have their own state - that, of course, is the problem.
Wonderful story, wonderful program, wonderful channel!
This reads like a fairy tale--it is so unbelievable--and yet it must be true. I thank God that people like Aliza actually exist. She is a brave and holy woman because she listens to what her heart tells her and acts accordingly. Perhaps the Palestinians will get a home after all.