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With Sharon Ailing, Ehud Olmert, a Career Politician, Takes Top Spot

January 6, 2006
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Ehud Olmert, who has taken over as acting prime minister following Ariel Sharon’s debilitating stroke, is a career politician with a clear ideological focus. If he becomes prime minister in his own right, Olmert can be expected to carry on peacemaking efforts with the Palestinians where Sharon left off. Olmert was one of the chief architects of Sharon’s main foreign policy achievement — last summer’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. When Sharon broke away from his ruling Likud Party to form a new centrist party, Kadima, last November, Olmert was one of the first to follow him.

In late 2003, it was Olmert who first outlined Sharon’s new thinking on the Palestinian issue: In a string of interviews in Israeli media, Olmert argued that Israel could not allow itself to remain stuck forever occupying territory where Palestinians lived, which could undercut the Jewish and democratic nature of the state.

If agreements with the Palestinians proved impossible, Olmert said, Israel would have to set its borders on its own. It soon became clear that Olmert was floating the ideas as trial balloons for Sharon, but the same thinking probably will inform his decision-making as prime minister.

Olmert, 60, has been in politics all his adult life. Supporters see him as an experienced and savvy politician with proven leadership qualities; opponents denigrate him as an opportunistic wheeler-dealer.

Olmert first was elected to the Knesset in 1973, at age 28. At 43 he was minister without portfolio responsible for Israeli Arab Affairs, at 45 he was health minister and at 48 he became mayor of Jerusalem, a post he held for 10 years before returning to politics on the national stage.

Olmert was born in Israel into a politically active right-wing family associated with the Herut movement, but he showed his intellectual independence by joining Shmuel Tamir’s Free Center, a breakaway faction from Herut, in the mid-1960s.

The formation of the Likud in 1973 brought the Free Center, Herut and three other parties together, and in 1977 Olmert played an active role in Menachem Begin’s successful bid for prime minister.

As a young Knesset member, the highly articulate Olmert gained attention for his anti-corruption efforts. He also was part of a group of Likud rebels who voted against Begin’s 1978 Camp David peace agreement with Egypt.

Since then, Olmert’s views on the territorial question have changed dramatically. In a recent newspaper interview he declared that “I am sorry Begin is not alive for me to be able to publicly recognize his wisdom and my mistake. He was right and I was wrong. Thank God we pulled out of Sinai.”

Olmert is trained as a lawyer, with degrees in philosophy and psychology. He exercises frequently, speaks excellent English and can be extremely charming, but also can be very aggressive in response to media questioning.

His wife Aliza is a playwright and artist, on the left of the Israeli political spectrum. They have four children and one adopted daughter. Olmert often jokes that, as the only right-winger, he’s often a minority within the family.

In 1993, running on a right-wing ticket, Olmert defeated the legendary Teddy Kollek for mayor of Jerusalem. He made a political pact with the fervently Orthodox to cement his power in the city, alienating many left-wing and centrist secular voters.

In 1996, when the Likud regained power under Benjamin Netanyahu, Olmert was not invited to take part in the government. He and Netanyahu have remained bitter rivals ever since.

In 1999, Olmert incurred the wrath of many Likudniks when he mocked the party’s election slogan that Labor candidate and future prime minister Ehud Barak “would divide Jerusalem.” Olmert later was humiliated when Barak indeed backed a division of the city.

In 1999, after Netanyahu lost the premiership to Barak and resigned as Likud chairman, Olmert challenged Sharon for the Likud Party leadership. He won about 24 percent of the vote, less than half of Sharon’s tally.

In 2003, Olmert returned to national politics as one of Sharon’s closest allies against Netanyahu. Deeply disappointed when Sharon gave the finance portfolio to Netanyahu, Olmert insisted on a deputy premiership as compensation.

Now the wheel has come full circle: He succeeded Netanyahu as finance minister last August and now, as Sharon’s deputy, is acting prime minister.

But it will not be easy for Olmert, who lacks security credentials, to fill Sharon’s shoes. A lot will depend on the extent to which his Kadima colleagues unite round him, and for now they say they intend to do so.

Olmert is not the most popular politician in Kadima; recent polls indicate that voters would prefer ex-Laborite Shimon Peres or Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to step up and lead the party. Still, he hopes that their support, and a few weeks in the top job, will convince the public that he has what it takes to be prime minister full time.

Pundits note that when Golda Meir took over the national leadership from Levi Eshkol in 1969, she had only 3 percent public support, but within months had become a very popular prime minister. Olmert, who starts off with higher levels of support, hopes incumbency will create the same widespread acceptance of his leadership.

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