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(photo credit: AP [file])
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert talked to The Jerusalem Post last week about the process that led to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon privately declaring him his successor.
He described late-night dinners at Sharon's house in mid-2002, during which they discussed Sharon's plans for the future of the country and for Olmert himself. He said Sharon that asked him to be a senior cabinet minister in his second term, and that the conversation shifted to what would happen once Sharon retired.
"Arik said a few times that I could have his job when the time came," Olmert said.
Olmert's recollections indicate that relations between the two men improved dramatically in the three years following the September 2, 1999 Likud leadership race - which pitted one man against the other - remembered as one of the nastiest in Israeli political history.
People who were close to Sharon at the time of the primary said that Olmert's frequent personal attacks against him hurt him deeply, and that even though the two later became close political allies, he never forgot what Olmert had said about him.
To better understand the complex relationship between the prime minister and the man favored in the polls to succeed him, it is important to review the events of that race, in which Sharon won 53 percent of the vote, Olmert 24%, and Olmert's current Kadima ally, Meir Sheetrit, 22%.
Sharon was favored to win the race from the outset, largely due to a promise he made to hold another Likud primary ahead of the 2001 general election, when Binyamin Netanyahu was expected to return. Sharon also tried to prevent the race from happening by passing a proposal to allow himself to remain interim Likud leader for two years, but he didn't succeed because Olmert and other Likud officials objected.
Sharon was alarmed by the vast sums of money that Olmert had succeeded in raising for his election campaign, which he spent on newspaper ads attacking Sharon. To make up for his father's cash flow disadvantage, Omri Sharon formed the non-profit organizations for illegal fundraising, which led to the jail sentence he was given last month.
Olmert and Sheetrit repeatedly attacked Sharon for his age, then 71, but Sharon ultimately used it to his advantage to attract support from Silvan Shalom, Limor Livnat and other top Likud leaders who considered themselves prime ministerial material.
LOOKING THROUGH the Post's archive at coverage of the race in which Sharon and Olmert filed police complaints against each other, one is struck by many quotes that would sound surprising nowadays. Olmert accused Sharon of misusing the party's finances, of being "the worst minister in the history of the state," and of using "Mafia-style tactics" to blacken his name.
The latter quote came after Sharon hired a private investigator, David Spector, to look for dirt on Olmert. Spector later admitted that he had been behind a Channel 2 investigative report about yeshiva students whom Olmert signed up in the Likud membership drive. The report said that Olmert approached yeshiva heads and offered to aid their institutions if all their students joined the Likud and voted for him.
In an August 19 press conference, Olmert said that electing Sharon "would destroy any chance that the Likud will return to power at any time."
Accusing Sharon of planning to leave the Likud, Olmert urged him to quit the party already and said that "if there's one man who is the symbol of the antithesis of loyalty, leadership and party discipline it is Arik Sharon."
As he does in Kadima's commercials with Netanyahu, Olmert challenged Sharon to look him in the eye and deny the charge.
In a July 20 interview with the Post, Olmert said that as national infrastructure minister, Sharon's ministry, more than any other, failed to help Jerusalem, and he hinted that his age was the reason.
"Few in the history of the country have given of themselves like Arik, but it's true to say that the last four years were not the most prominent in his career,' Olmert said. "I don't know why, nor do I want to say why. What's important is the final outcome, and his performance was far less impressive than in the past."
In the same interview, Olmert didn't spare any criticism for Sheetrit either, saying that he "has an outstanding view of himself. If somebody else felt the same way about him, it would help his campaign."
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