WASHINGTON — Yossi Olmert, the embattled younger brother of Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, is getting a boost from Jewish organizations as he tries to remake himself in America after leaving a trail of bad debts and livid creditors in Israel.
The Israel Project, a Washington-based organization that tries to improve Israel’s image in the media, hired the younger Olmert last week as a scholar in residence. Jewish National Fund lists him on its roster of recommended lecturers as a “journalist and top Middle East expert,” and he has been hired by other Jewish organizations for speaking engagements.
Olmert, who will work out of New York, told the Forward that he is putting his life back together after a string of financial setbacks that have caused considerable embarrassment for his politically powerful brother and well-connected family.
“Everything is on the way toward resolution,” Olmert said. He denied Israeli media reports stating that he fled Israel and that he is hiding in America from his creditors. “Everyone knows where I am,” Olmert said. “I appear in public. I did not flee, and I am not in hiding.”
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder and president of The Israel Project, brushed off any suggestion that employing Olmert could cause an image problem for her organization.
“We are proud to have someone with Yossi Olmert’s depth of knowledge and commitment to Israel on our team,” Laszlo Mizrahi said. Among other things, Olmert will head the project’s New York bureau through the summer, instructing a program that introduces journalism students to Israel.
Laszlo Mizrahi noted that Olmert has a doctorate from the London School of Economics, wrote four books on the Middle East, and maintains excellent relationships with many journalists and political officials.
Yossi Olmert took risks in order to win public office over the past decade, and his financial entanglement was exploited by people who tried to damage his brother’s election campaign, Laszlo Mizrahi said.
Olmert came to the United States in August 2004, shortly after filing for bankruptcy in Israel, and has not returned since. He said that, in the past year-and-a-half, he has been living modestly in New York, making barely enough money to support himself, and hoping to earn a steady salary from a reputable American academic institution to repay some $600,000 that he reportedly owes his creditors. The extent to which his three brothers — including the acting prime minister — are helping him financially is not clear.
An expert on Syria, Olmert, 56, is a former university professor. In 1989 he became director of Israel’s Government Press Office and an adviser to then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. A loyal member of Likud for years, Olmert ran two failed campaigns in the mid-1990s for a Likud seat in the Knesset. Later he ran an expensive campaign to become the mayor of the city of Ra’anana, and failed again.
To finance these campaigns, Olmert spent a great deal of his own money; reportedly he made several bad business investments. As a result he accumulated debts and took loans to repay them, according to Israeli media reports.
In interviews with the Israeli media, Olmert said that he hid his financial troubles from his wife and brothers until he was deeply in debt. His wife left him. His brothers, he said in a recent statement to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, “helped and are helping me to the best of their ability.”
“I am supposed to settle my debts on my own,” Olmert said. “My brothers are giving backing to me and my family to get through these difficult times.”
The Israeli news media have been reporting on Olmert’s financial troubles during the past 20 months, but not as doggedly as American news organizations report on the personal problems of American politicians’ family members. But then, on March 17 — less than two weeks before the Israeli election — Yediot published an embarrassing exposé of the younger brother’s troubles. Complete with quotes from several of his creditors and from his wife, friends and foes, the story portrays Olmert as having fallen victim to his own pride, political ambitions and eternal optimism.
In a statement he gave to Yediot, Olmert said: “I am an optimist in my thinking and deeds. I believe that by determination and focusing on the goal of repaying my creditors, I will succeed in the future to make considerable amounts of money by giving lectures in order to send [money] to the creditors.”
Following a March 31 briefing to reporters that he gave in Washington, hosted by The Israel Project, Olmert declined to talk with the Forward about his personal business. He said that discussing these matters could only damage his efforts to financially rehabilitate himself in America.
The Olmert brothers grew up in a right-wing family in Nahalat Jabotinsky, a cooperative farm. The farm is named after Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of the revisionist Zionist party in pre-state Palestine that called for the establishment of a Jewish state on both banks of the Jordan River, in the areas now known as Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. In recent years, both Ehud and Yossi have come to the conclusion that Israel must make territorial compromises even on the western bank of the river, in the territories.
The younger Olmert said he still believes that the Jewish people have rights over all the Land of Israel, But he said that “for the purpose of a higher goal — the attainment of peace — we need to give up on the fulfillment of part of our rights.”
“If you ask me the process which I have undergone, it is [the recognition] that, yes, the realities of the situation are such that issues like demography, security, domestic expectations and international pressures — all have to be taken into account in order to shape up a political formula for the future,” Olmert said. “And we therefore need to move away from old concepts even if we adhere to them emotionally in order to embark upon the road to reconciliation.”
The true test of a leader, he added, is “the ability of leaders to adapt themselves to changing realities and circumstances.”