- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 7, 2006

JERUSALEM — Ehud Olmert, a blunt, cigar-smoking political operator, was Ariel Sharon’s staunchest ally during the prime minister’s transformation from hawk to moderate.

With Mr. Sharon’s sudden collapse, a grim-faced Mr. Olmert took the reins of power Wednesday, trying to convey continuity but acknowledging in a special Cabinet session that the nation, like his mentor, is in a “serious situation.”

“Arik is not only a prime minister and a leader, but also a close friend to us all,” Mr. Olmert said, referring to Mr. Sharon by his nickname. “This is a difficult time and we will stand together.”

Mr. Olmert was Mr. Sharon’s strongest supporter as the prime minister withdrew Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in September. When other members of the hard-line Likud Party turned on Mr. Sharon because of the Gaza pullout, Mr. Olmert became the prime minister’s point man.

“Olmert can take credit for having sponsored disengagement before Sharon. He served as his vanguard in putting the plan to the public,” said analyst Yossi Alpher.

Mr. Olmert was first elected to parliament at age 28, serving as a lawmaker for seven terms and holding several ministerial posts. In those years, Mr. Olmert was investigated repeatedly for corruption, but was never convicted of wrongdoing.

Elected mayor of Jerusalem in 1993, Mr. Olmert held the office for 10 years, supporting Israeli moves to settle in Palestinian-dominated areas of the city. In 1996, he opened a tunnel along a disputed Jerusalem holy site, an act that sparked days of Israeli-Palestinian clashes in which 80 persons were killed.

Mr. Olmert once backed moves to build settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War. In 1979, he opposed then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s decision to withdraw from the Sinai Desert as part of a peace deal with Egypt.

Recently, Mr. Olmert decided he had erred.

He said he wished Mr. Begin were still alive so he could tell him that pulling out of Sinai was the right thing to do.

A recent opinion poll found that Mr. Olmert, as leader of the new Kadima party, could win by a small margin — but the situation is fluid and analysts said it is difficult to predict what would happen to the movement in Mr. Sharon’s absence.

Mr. Olmert “is known to be a very shrewd politician and a very able guy. People always respected his intellect but maybe didn’t like his personality,” said Menachem Hofnung, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “He’s very outspoken. He’s not known to be very warm to people.”

As acting prime minister, the public could come to see Mr. Olmert as a leader, said analyst Gadi Wolfsfeld. “No one really loves Olmert, but no one really hates him, therefore he has a chance of convincing the public.”

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