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How Philip Roth changed Ehud Olmert’s mind

Former JTA staffer Chanan Tigay has a nice article for The Atlantic on former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s political future (will he run again, or won’t he?) and past political transformations.

So how did the former Likud prince become the great hope of some Israeli doves? Famed American novelist (and recent literary retiree) Philip Roth may have played at least a small role.

Tigay writes:

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Those who have followed Olmert’s career offer up a variety of explanations for his leftward drift. In the winter of 1988, with the first intifada raging, author Bernard Avishai was visiting Israel with Philip Roth and stopped by the Knesset to introduce the famous American writer to Olmert, then a Likud back-bencher whom Avishai had known since 1974. As they sat down to lunch in the parliament’s cafeteria, Olmert suggested that a mass migration of American Jews to the West Bank would render moot the claims of rebellious Palestinians.

"Philip looked at him and said ‘Are you crazy? American Jews aren’t coming,’" recalls Avishai, author of The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace at Last. "And Olmert said, ‘Why would they not come?’ and Philip said ‘Because they have lives of their own.’"

The conversation ended quickly but Olmert told Avishai that it made a lasting impression. "I talked to [Olmert] recently and he said he remembers the conversation very, very well," Avishai says. "What really changed him was the growing realization that American liberalism for Jews was something really important and authentic and they had no intention of coming to Israel."

"[Olmert] also saw what happened in South Africa in the 1990s," Avishai adds. "It’s not that the Israeli and South African situations were alike, but he felt that this path toward failed annexation would nevertheless isolate Israel diplomatically and internationally and that Jews in America would be among those leading the charge."

Avishai, incidentally, has argued that President Obama should appoint Bill Clinton as his Middle East peace envoy. If Clinton doesn’t work out, maybe Avishai will suggest Philip Roth next. He now has some free time, after all.

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