JERUSALEM, Jan. 16 (JTA) He inherited power from Israel’s ailing prime minister, but Ehud Olmert looks set to prove his worth at the polls. Having been named interim prime minister after Ariel Sharon was hospitalized with a stroke, Olmert was on Monday confirmed as temporary head of the ruling Kadima Party, virtually guaranteeing he will be its candidate in the March 28 elections. Aides to Sharon, who has been in a coma since suffering a massive stroke Jan. 4, said he briefly opened his eyes Monday. But doctors played down hopes this could herald a recovery. The best-case scenarios speak of Sharon being hospitalized for months well past the upcoming elections. Election surveys predict an easy win for Kadima, thanks to public perceptions that it is best equipped to build on last year’s Gaza Strip withdrawal and end the past five years of Palestinian-Israeli violence. But that assumes the current relative calm holds a prospect that may prove illusory if Hamas, which is running in a Palestinian Authority parliamentary ballot later this month, again escalates its terrorism campaign. Unlike ex-general Sharon, Olmert, 60, is an apparatchik. But in his first two weeks in the top office, Olmert has already flexed his political muscles. His first challenge was the Palestinian Authority’s demand for its parliamentary campaign to take place in eastern Jerusalem, a de-facto challenge to the city’s status as Israel’s capital. Aided by the resignation of four Cabinet ministers from the rival Likud Party, Olmert won approval for limiting the electioneering to those Palestinians not tainted by terrorism. But Olmert found it tougher to tackle rioting by hundreds of settler youths in an area of Hebron where Israelis squatting in Palestinian-owned properties are slated for eviction. “The government will not accept such wild and unrestrained behavior,” Olmert told fellow ministers in broadcast remarks Sunday. But the crackdown did not come until Monday, when police flooded Hebron and arrested at least three settlers for disorderly conduct. By that point, most of the youths had fled. “Someone who, like Olmert, supported the disengagement and sees himself as Ariel Sharon’s heir cannot explain away his weakness on this matter when confronted by a group of hooligans,” the liberal Ha’aretz newspaper editorialized. According to political sources, Olmert is stepping lightly when it comes to domestic issues, for fear of being perceived as too different from his predecessor. At the head of a caretaker government, he is taking care to preserve the sense that Sharon’s absence from politics is temporary. To replace the departed Likud foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, Olmert has tapped Tzipi Livni, whom Sharon was widely believed to be grooming as a potential successor. Livni, a former Mossad agent, would be the second woman to fill the prestigious post after Golda Meir.
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