- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2006

JERUSALEM

For the past two months, Ehud Olmert has presided over Israel’s Cabinet meetings from a seat at the side of the table, leaving the prime minister’s chair empty as though Ariel Sharon were still in charge.

But since becoming acting prime minister after Mr. Sharon’s massive Jan. 4 stroke, Mr. Olmert has quickly put his mark on the government in what has become an audition for the top job.

He has already shown his mettle by getting tough on Palestinian militants and Jewish settlers alike, while readying Israel for painful territorial concessions in the future.

Polls show that Mr. Olmert, 60, who has never been particularly popular with the Israeli public, is likely to lead his centrist Kadima party to a strong victory in Tuesday’s election and become prime minister in his own right.

It is an opportunity the lawyer and career politician has been preparing for throughout his decades as a lawmaker, mayor of Jerusalem, Cabinet minister, and finally Mr. Sharon’s close confidant and heir apparent.

“He’s been close to decision-making for a long time and observed several prime ministers,” said Eyal Arad, a Kadima strategist. “He’s had all the training that’s required, and he certainly has the capabilities.”

He has also courted controversy.

Mr. Olmert began his career as a crusader against corruption who was later indicted — and acquitted — of corruption charges. He earned a reputation as an intelligent politician, but one who is rude and condescending to his political opponents.

He cultivated an image as a regular guy who loved sitting in a raucous soccer stadium to cheer his beloved Beitar Jerusalem team. But he also favors fine cigars and expensive suits far beyond the means of his fellow fans.

Olmert ‘a realist’

Balding and trim, Mr. Olmert says he works out on a treadmill every morning to relieve tension and has shed 55 pounds.

Once an outspoken hawk who preached a “Greater Israel” and worked to solidify Jewish control over Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, Mr. Olmert underwent a startling conversion and decided Israel had to pull out of most areas captured in the 1967 Mideast War, just as many Israelis were reaching the same conclusion.

“He is definitely a realist, and he is a very, very, very intelligent guy,” said David Kimche, president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations. “He probably is head and shoulders above most politicians in that respect.”

Mr. Olmert was born into politics. His Russian-born father, Mordechai, who immigrated to Palestine in 1933, served in Israel’s parliament in the 1950s as a member of Herut, a precursor of the Likud Party, which longed to expand Israel’s borders to include all of Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

His son made his name at 21, when he stood up at a Herut convention and demanded that Menachem Begin resign for leading the party to a string of electoral defeats. He reached the Knesset at 28 — at the time, the youngest lawmaker ever elected.

Mr. Olmert crusaded against corruption, became a Cabinet minister in 1988, and in 1993 easily outpolled legendary Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek in a hard-fought municipal election.

In his decade running the politically sensitive city, Mr. Olmert stirred controversy with his efforts to solidify Jewish control of traditionally Arab areas of Jerusalem.

He watched as municipal employees, working in the dead of night 10 years ago, chipped through the last stones of a new tourist tunnel near the politically sensitive site revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. It caused a spasm of Israeli-Palestinian violence that left 79 dead in three days.

Sharon confidant

“All of these actions were understood as provocations by the extreme right,” said Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

When Mr. Sharon was re-elected prime minister in 2003, he brought Mr. Olmert along as his vice prime minister and confidant.

Privately, Mr. Olmert was undergoing a major transformation. In a December 2003 interview with Yediot Ahronot, Mr. Olmert said he had abandoned the dream of a Greater Israel that would include Gaza and the West Bank.

The choice was painful, Mr. Olmert said, but if Israel did not act quickly and pull out of the Palestinian areas, the growing Arab population would soon overwhelm the Jewish population. “It will lead to the loss of Israel as a Jewish state,” he said.

The interview set the stage for Mr. Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza last summer.

Dan Meridor, a former Likud minister and close friend of Mr. Olmert, said it took courage for an ambitious leader in the hard-line party to call for Israel to cede territory to the Palestinians. “It was not popular within the Likud Party. It was leading the way,” he said.

Israelis puzzled over Mr. Olmert’s change of heart. Many pointed to his wife, Aliza, an artist, and their four children, all avowed doves who Mr. Olmert says have never voted for him.

One of Mr. Olmert’s sons refused to do military service in the West Bank or Gaza and another chose not to serve in the army at all. Mr. Olmert himself had served as an officer in the Golani infantry brigade and as a military reporter.

“Of course my wife and children influenced me,” he told Yediot Ahronot in a recent interview. “Aliza and I have a very special bond. There is a complex, and I think fascinating dialogue between my children and me. There are a lot of disagreements and anger, but also a lot of mutual respect.”

‘Typical politician’

Dovish lawmaker Yossi Sarid saw a different transformation. Mr. Olmert began his career as a courageous lawmaker, he said. “Now he’s a typical politician, unfortunately … opportunistic, cynical, no apparent clear values, zigzagging, attracting not the best company.”

In November, with Likud deeply riven by the Gaza pullout, Mr. Olmert followed Mr. Sharon in bolting the party to form Kadima. When Mr. Sharon suffered his stroke, Mr. Olmert quietly stepped in, maintaining an aura of somber respect for the comatose prime minister — Israel’s most popular politician — while portraying himself as his designated heir.

In his brief audition, Mr. Olmert managed to assemble a track record of his own as he worked to distinguish himself from dovish Labor and hawkish Likud.

He showed his independence from the powerful settler movement when he ordered the Feb. 1 evacuation of unauthorized buildings in the West Bank outpost of Amona, an operation that turned violent and left 200 settlers and police injured.

Mr. Olmert allowed some Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote in Jan. 25 Palestinian elections, despite pressure from hard-liners worried it would undermine Israel’s claims to the city.

When the militant Hamas won the vote, he ignored recommendations to seal off Gaza and isolate the Palestinians, and instead mobilized international pressure to try to force the group to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

And then he did something no mainstream candidate, left or right, had done before: He announced plans to uproot most settlements and pull Israel out of much of the West Bank, but also to fortify Israel’s hold over major settlement blocs.

This month, Mr. Olmert approved a dramatic army raid on a Palestinian jail in the West Bank city of Jericho that nabbed the militants behind the 2001 assassination of Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi, a politician idolized by the far right.

The moves conveyed the impression of a decisive leader willing to make concessions, but also willing to use force — a smart combination, according to political analyst Yossi Verter, writing in the Ha’aretz daily after the Jericho raid.

“The public,” he said, “likes leaders who show diplomatic moderation and military toughness.”

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