Sunday, January 15, 2006

Olmert, the un-Sharon.

NY Daily News:

He's a lean, athletic intellectual ex-mayor with loads of political savvy, a lack of military credentials, snappy suits, excellent English and a lefty wife.

In many ways, Ehud Olmert is not what you'd expect as Ariel Sharon's heir apparent.

Still, in the 10 days since the once-invincible general was felled by a catastrophic stroke, his vice minister has gained in popularity and now stands to become Israel's prime minister in his own right in March.

Partly, it's sympathy for his ailing patron. But Olmert, 60, is also well positioned politically, a settlement-builder-turned-bulldozer-of-settlements and a pragmatist clearing a new middle ground to appeal to voters sick of generations of deadlock between the left and right.

One of Olmert's major problems is his lack of military honors in a country that likes to be led by generals. An injury kept Olmert from fighting, so he served as an Army reporter.

His political background, however, is strong. Olmert's Russian father, Mordechai Olmert, was a fighter with Irgun, the Zionist militants who fought the British for a Jewish homeland before 1948. He was later a right-wing member of the Knesset.

As hawkish as his dad, Olmert studied law and philosophy and in 1974, at 28, was elected the youngest member of the Knesset while also building a legal practice. He was a staunch advocate of building Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas captured by Israel and at the time, even opposed Prime Minister Menachem Begin's 1978 peace deal with Egypt that returned the Sinai desert.

As a young minister in the 1970s, Olmert followed a classic path toward recognition: high-profile corruption probes, including one into shenanigans in the soccer world. He's a rabid fan of the Betar Jerusalem soccer team. Ironically, he later became the target of at least three corruption investigations, but always avoided prosecution.

In 1993, Olmert won an upset victory for mayor of Jerusalem against the legendary Teddy Kollek. As mayor, he courted the ultra-Orthodox and further cemented Israeli control over East Jerusalem by demolishing illegally built Arab houses while boosting Jewish construction.

He also became fast friends with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Like Giuliani, Olmert won over some critics for the way he bucked up Jerusalem during a spate of terrible bombings.
Olmert's attempts to return to national politics were thwarted by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and a bitter feud developed. In 1998, he helped Labor leader Ehud Barak defeat Netanyahu.

Olmert and Sharon also were rivals until Sharon became prime minister in 2001, when the two men developed an alliance based on a shared dislike of Netanyahu. Olmert soon became Sharon's trusted adviser and was widely seen as the strategist behind many of the prime minister's decisions.

He boasted that the most dramatic of those decisions - to pull down settlements in Gaza - was his idea and just the beginning of further pullbacks.

Tired of sniping by Likud opponents led by Netanyahu, Sharon left to start a new party, Kadima, and Olmert went with him.

Extremely intelligent, the blunt, cigar-chomping Olmert flattered and impressed a delegation of visiting lawmakers this week with his memory, recalling having met individuals decades ago - meetings they themselves had forgotten.

"He knew the names of half the people in the room," said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens). "It indicates this guy's a player."

Ackerman said Olmert came across as thoughtful and eloquent and serious. "He spoke in glowing terms continuously about Sharon. He made it clear he was the vice minister only - he won't use his office or sit in his chair - but he was also laying out that beyond any doubt he was Sharon's designated successor," he said.

Olmert's wife, Aliza, is a successful screenwriter, photographer and conceptual artist. They have four children and all are on Israel's far left - Olmert jokes he's the minority in the family.

Long before the Israeli elections in late March, Olmert will face a greater test: the Palestinian elections Jan. 25, when the political scene is likely to become ever more complicated by a strong showing by the militants in Hamas.

How Olmert handles that crisis - and the feared violence that might accompany it - will go a long way toward making or breaking his political future.