Israel's skillful heir to Sharon

Voters endorse Olmert's plan for West Bank settlements, future borders

March 29, 2006|By JOHN MURPHY | JOHN MURPHY,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

JERUSALEM -- Few Israelis imagined a year ago that Ehud Olmert would become their country's next prime minister. The former mayor of Jerusalem had a reputation as a cold, sometimes arrogant politician burdened by accusations of corruption.

But Olmert led the new centrist party Kadima to victory in parliamentary elections yesterday, gaining an endorsement for his plan to give up some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and to define Israel's permanent borders -- with or without negotiations with the Palestinians.

Though Kadima won fewer seats than forecast, Olmert won the right to form the next government and sit in the prime minister's chair.

Since becoming acting prime minister after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a severe stroke Jan. 4, Olmert has sought to prove to the country that he is Sharon's rightful heir.

Olmert showed that he could be firm and uncompromising both with Palestinian militants and Jewish settlers: He dismantled illegal buildings in a West Bank settlement, sending in bulldozers and police on horseback to subdue angry settlers. He ordered an army raid on a Palestinian jail in Jericho to arrest militants accused in the assassination of a Cabinet minister in 2001.

Most important, he gave Israeli voters something they had not heard previously from any politician: He outlined, in detail, a plan to evacuate settlements from the West Bank and secure Israel's hold on the largest settlements there, and promised to complete that work by 2010.

Writing in the newspaper Maariv on the eve of the election, Amnon Danker, the editor in chief, endorsed Olmert, saying he had displayed "courage and integrity and taken great risks."

"The State of Israel has a rare window of opportunity, for what remains of George Bush's term of office, to determine, with American agreement, permanent borders with a solid Jewish majority," Danker wrote. "Olmert's plan to evacuate isolated settlements into the main settlement blocs will make this possible and will extricate us from the present political, economic and moral imbroglio of the occupation and the settlements."

Still, not even Olmert's supporters claimed that he connected with the public on a personal level. He lacked the common touch that endeared his predecessor to many voters despite Sharon's divisive career as a hard-charging general and as minister of defense, as one of the targets of corruption investigations that have grown to include his sons.

Thin, tall and balding, Olmert looks more suited to the role of a Fortune 500 businessman, puffing on fine cigars and appearing often in finely tailored suits. Although he says his favorite pastime is to sit in the stands in Jerusalem's soccer stadium, cheering the Beitar Jerusalem team, he doesn't generate warmth among ordinary Israelis.

"Mr. Olmert is the embodiment of this new class of Israeli barons to whom he is very close," said Ari Shavit, a political commentator for the newspaper Haaretz.

"Olmert is a very, very skillful politician, and he is one of the most intelligent people in government, cool-headed, very calculated. I do hope when he is in power on his own legs that he will rise to the challenge and he will prove to be the great person we so much need in this country."

A poll conducted last week by Maariv found voters troubled by Olmert, with 35 percent of the respondents saying that they believe he is beholden to wealthy people, 18 percent saying that he is corrupt and 15 percent that he is arrogant.

Asked what they liked about Olmert, the most popular response was that they did not like or appreciate anything about him.

Dan Amit, 26, a student at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said his distrust of Olmert was the main reason he questioned whether he should vote for Kadima. While all the main Kadima candidates have something to contribute to government, Olmert, as party leader, did not.

"A fish stinks from its head," Amit said.

But such views never seemed to discourage Olmert from seeking high office.

Born in 1945 in Binyamina, in northern Israel, Olmert is the son of Jewish underground fighters who struggled for acceptance by Israel's mainstream. His father Mordechai Olmert, from Russia, and his mother, Bella, from Ukraine, were members of the underground army led by Menachem Begin, the Irgun. The younger Olmert, at play, liked to pretend to be David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister, according to a recent profile in The Jerusalem Report. His father would later become a member of Israel's parliament.

Clever and ambitious, Olmert was 21 when he made a name for himself as a member of the Herut party, standing up at a party meeting and demanding the resignation of Begin, its leader, after the party lost a series of elections.

Begin remained party leader and became prime minister in 1977. Herut became part of the Likud -- until last year the party of Olmert.

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