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Olmert Facing Toughest Test of Long Career

Olmert Facing Toughest Test of Long Career

When Yitzchak Shamir was facing Yitzchak Rabin in the 1992 election, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert counseled Shamir to announce that if elected he would withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

"He felt that Shamir needed to do that to save the election," recalled Stephen P. Cohen, a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum. "Shamir said no and Rabin won the election."

Olmert counseled the Gaza withdrawal because "he realized that there was a change in the Israeli electorate," Cohen said. "It was partly for demographic reasons and partly as a result of the first intifada [in the late 1980s]. He saw that Israelis were not willing to go to war for Gaza. He saw that Israeli opinion wanted to try something different" in the face of Palestinian violence.

In 2003, Olmert became one of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharonís closest confidants and vice prime minister. The second intifada was raging and Olmert again suggested a Gaza withdrawal.

Ten days later, in December 2003, Sharon embraced the suggestion and carried it out last summer. Such bold vision will surely be needed in the months ahead as Olmert leads the State of Israel during what promises to be a tumultuous time – the recovery of an ailing Sharon, a Palestinian election Jan. 25 that includes candidates from the Hamas terrorist group, and Israeli elections March 28. Those who know him describe Olmert as a "visionary" who is up to the challenge.

"He was the author of the phrase ‘Only the Likud can make peace’ because it had the support of the people," Cohen said. "He felt that Likud’s role in Israeli society could only be maintained if it had the support of the people. Once it did, it could make the decisions that were needed.

"That is consistent with why he was in favor of creating a new party [Kadima]: because he believes it represents the majority of the people."

Olmert, 60, who became acting prime minister after Sharon was stricken last week with a massive cerebral hemorrhage, has gradually coalesced support around him among members of Kadima and many analysts believe he will remain in that position until Israeli elections March 28. He would then be Kadima’s prime ministerial candidate against Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and Amir Peretz of Labor.

On Tuesday, Israelís Channel 2 reported that Olmert had struck a deal in which Shimon Peres would get the second slot on Kadima’s slate of candidates for Knesset seats in return for not returning to the Labor Party.

The TV report said Tzipi Livni, the current justice minister who had been expected to get the slot, had agreed to be moved to third in return for being appointed foreign minister should Kadima form the next government. A senior Kadima member was quoted as saying that Livni acted "for the sake of the party."

Channel 2 said that should Sharon recover sufficiently to discuss politics, he would have the final word on the Knesset list.

All parties have to submit their slate of candidates by Feb. 7. The Jerusalem Post reported Wednesday that Kadima leaders would not decide their list beyond the top three slots for now as polls showed the party maintaining its wide lead and attention was focused on Sharon’s condition.

Steven Spiegel, a political science professor at UCLA, said the danger arises for Olmert "if there is a fight for the top spots. That is going to be the test of his leadership. If he is able to weather it, and Kadima does well in the polls, he could well wind up" being elected.

A poll released Wednesday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that Kadima would win 44 seats, up from 40 a week ago; that Labor would drop two seats, to 16; and that Likud was holding steady with 13.

Olmert’s ability to pull together a disparate group of high-profile Kadima members is one of the toughest political challenges he has faced since being elected to the Knesset at the age of 28 (the youngest at that point) and having served as Jerusalem’s mayor for 10 years until 2003.

It is also a sign of political acuity Olmert did not have when he told The Jewish Week in June 1985, "I hate politics. I hate the ‘politics’ of politics. I hate the party work. I hate all the long and boring sessions."

At the time he considered himself a "moderate hawk" who opposed Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s decision to dismantle the Jewish settlements in the Sinai as part of the peace treaty that returned the Sinai to Egypt.

It was a position he would abandon; Olmert voiced regret a year ago that he could not tell the late prime minister that he had changed his opinion.

In June, Olmert told the Israel Policy Forum, "We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies. We want that we will be able to live in an entirely different environment of relations with our enemies."

As prime minister, Olmert would have to "erase his image as a political zigzagger," observed Gil Hoffman in the Jerusalem Post. "Olmert has taken many surprising steps, meandering back and forth in his political leanings and ideological orientation."

For instance, Olmert grew up in the Betar youth movement, a right-wing organization. His late father, Mordechai, was a member of the Knesset from the Herut Party, the forerunner of Likud. The son rose through the ranks of Likud through its left flank, and even joined a move to unseat Begin. He favored unilaterally implementing autonomy for the Palestinians and negotiations with Syria over the Golan Heights.

But as Hoffman pointed out, Olmert shifted to the right after being elected mayor of Jerusalem in 1993, championing the opening of the Western Wall tunnel in 1996 and Jewish settlement in Arab sections of Jerusalem.

Olmert, a lawyer who speaks fluent English, is also very personable. One confidant in New York said there is "not a person who has met him who is not fond of him and doesnít respect him."

His warmth is on display each week.

Since the tragic death a decade ago of Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Shmuel Meir in a car accident at the age of 42, leaving behind a wife and eight children, Olmert has bought a challah and brought it to the home of his widow every Friday afternoon.

Olmert and his wife of more than 30 years, Aliza, a trained social worker and well-known artist, have five children, one of whom is adopted.

John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation, noted that after the 9-11 attack he accompanied Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg and Gov. George Pataki to Jerusalem for a 24-hour visit.

"Mayor Olmert was not only gracious in his welcome but he was able to orient each of us to the security challenges that faced Israel during the difficult months of the intifada," Ruskay recalled. "He has been a frequent guest [here]. Many have said the Regency Hotel is his second home."

Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, said Olmert is an avid sports fan who took 10 days off in 1996 to fly to Atlanta to attend the Olympics. Mekel, who was consul general in Atlanta, was his host.

"I had diplomatic license plates and he would travel with me in my car," Mekel said. "One day we were stopped at a police barricade and couldn’t go any further. I told my driver to tell the policeman that the man in the car is the mayor of Jerusalem. He let us through.

"From then on, throughout the Games there were times when I would travel without him, and I told my driver to say I was the mayor of Jerusalem when we were stopped at barricades."

It worked.

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