When I return to the prime minister’s residence at 10 p.m., Olmert is walking out his previous visitor, the Israeli-born movie producer Arnon Milchan, who runs New Regency in Hollywood. He is an old friend, and the prime minister puts him in an affectionate headlock. Olmert mentions, by way of introduction, that Milchan is the biggest private producer in the world. He’s not; he’s partners with a public company, for one thing. But Olmert is a flatterer. “No one has ever been slapped for overflattering,” he once told an aide.
We sit in the same armchairs as before, though now the office smells of strong cigars—Cubans.
“Would you like one?” Olmert asks, and fetches a cigar from a polished humidor. Soon we are facing each other across a low coffee table, cigars in hand. An assistant brings me an espresso, decaf. Olmert has already had a cappuccino.
It is a congenial moment. And part of Olmert’s problem, I can’t help but think. An exotic cigar, a European coffee. In Israel, there is a culture war, and such details are drawn into the fray.
Of course, Ariel Sharon smoked cigars, too, but Israelis tended to believe that Sharon had earned them. Most Israelis appear to accept that Sharon was corrupt—his son went to jail for campaign-finance fraud. Sharon, though, was a war hero; he raced across the Sinai in 1967 to defeat Egypt’s army, among other feats. (“I didn’t care about corruption,” one Israeli told me. “I wanted Sharon to rescue us.”) Olmert, as is often pointed out, was a mere journalist in the army. And almost as bad, he’d graduated into corporate law.
Comparing the two leaders is unavoidable. Olmert, after all, stepped directly into Sharon’s shoes, and not as the result of a soldierly battle. “Think of how I became prime minister,” Olmert tells me. “I got a phone call that Sharon is unconscious.” Olmert was deputy prime minister at the time. “From then on, I’m prime minister. Had you said that I would be prime minister a week earlier, the answer would have been, ‘Olmert? No chance of it.’ ”
If you read the Israeli press, Olmert tells me, “Olmert wakes up with Talansky and is his closest friend.” The prime minister seems almost insulted by the insinuation.
In Sharon’s case, a cigar was just a cigar. In Olmert’s, it is taken as a sign of snobbishness and indulgence. Olmert is part of a new generation of “post-mythic” Israeli leaders, as one Israeli explains. He’s a bon vivant, worldly, an older version of a yuppie. “I’m not being facetious,” Morris told the court. “Olmert loves expensive cigars. I know he loved pens, watches. I found it strange, but anyway.” Olmert, it seemed, was a man with a weakness for luxury—Morris testified, for instance, that he was called on to foot Olmert’s $4,700 hotel bill at the Ritz-Carlton. (“A lot for two days,” he told the court with a shrug.)
For the Israeli public, Morris’s testimony solidified a perception: Olmert is elitist—“almost effete,” as one critic tells me. For Israelis, he is identified by tastes, if not by address, with Israeli’s ascendant and much-resented entrepreneurial class, the one based in Tel Aviv, the country’s high-tech, secular, nouveau riche boomtown. In Tel Aviv, they no longer want to fight “over stones,” a reference to the boundary disputes in Jerusalem. They prefer to think globally and eat at Nobu, which is soon to arrive nearby.
Tel Aviv is on the same side of the culture war as is Olmert. “Tel Aviv wants to be like Paris,” says Morris, who is on the other. “In Jerusalem, we believe in God. In Tel Aviv, they think they can construct their own reality.” In Jerusalem they talk of the “betrayal of the elites,” and, as one critic complains, “Olmert is indicative of that betrayal.”
Olmert pushes back over an arm of his chair. In private he is more handsome than in public, and more vigorous—he’s a fitness nut, another yuppie flaw. At the moment, he looks perfectly relaxed, even as his political power crumbles. Pragmatic politics has turned against him. He’s lost his base. His steadfast religious supporters, including Morris, abandoned him once he decided that peace with the Palestinians is crucial, even if it means returning land. And then the ambitious in his own party sensed his weakness and revolted. Olmert understands this. He is himself a bruising politician, one who “disdains those intent on proving their purity,” as one friend says.
“What am I going to do to?” he asks me. “Occupy my mind day and night [with charges] or run the country? I have a job, a responsibility, a mission. There is nothing I love more than this country. The only way to prevail during this time is to focus on what I have to do and forget everything else.”