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A week after the completion of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, Ehud Olmert - then minister of industry, trade and labor - was invited to Washington for what was described as a "personal meeting" with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Olmert spent almost two hours at the State Department analyzing the political situation in Israel, going through different scenarios and providing answers to an American administration pleased by the implementation of the disengagement, but worried about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's political prospects.
According to sources briefed on the tete-a-tete, Olmert assured Rice that Sharon would survive his political difficulties, even if it meant breaking away from the Likud party.
This meeting, followed by a similar one with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, was part of the US administration's attempt to become familiar with younger Israeli politicians - particularly Olmert. But this was not because anyone in Washington, in August, thought that Olmert would become Israel's next prime minister. Nor was it because the administration was anticipating the "day after" Sharon. On the contrary, the interest the US began to show in Olmert was part of its effort to understand Sharon himself, not to look at possible successors.
"In the last couple of years, the understanding that Ehud Olmert was the closest politician to Sharon - that he was in fact his number 2 - led people in Washington to make it a point to meet with him," says Daniel Kurtzer, who just finished a four-year term as US ambassador to Israel.
According to Kurtzer, now a professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, Olmert was seen in the past by American officials as lacking support among the Israeli public, mainly due to his poor outcome in the Likud primaries. "But the formation of Kadima shook things up and even this perception has changed," he says.
US officials had many chances to come across Olmert during his 35 years of political activity. His most prominent post, in matters regarding international and American affairs, was as mayor of Jerusalem. Apart from the symbolic importance of the job (the mayor of Jerusalem is always part of the official protocol in visits of heads of state and foreign dignitaries), Olmert was also watched closely by the Americans because of the dangerous potential they saw in his plans to extend Jerusalem's municipal boundaries and build a Jewish neighborhood in Har Homa.
As a minister in charge of economic portfolios, Olmert was always in close contact with American officials. And as a seasoned politician, he was also always on the radar screen of the staff of the American embassy in Tel Aviv - who sought his input on the turbulent, and often capricious, Israeli political system.
Olmert gained recognition by the Americans as a significant player in the Israeli policy field only after the disengagement plan was presented. US officials began seeing Olmert as the driving force behind the plan, and as the one who planted it in the mind of Sharon. Though initially suspicious of the plan, the Bush administration learned to accept it - and eventually even adopt it - warmly.
Olmert then became an important figure for administration officials, who, on several occasions, even showed their preference for dealing with him over Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who at the time opposed the disengagement plan.
Yet the US administration never paid attention to Olmert as a possible leader of Israel, assuming he lacked public popularity because of a reading - true at the time - of internal Likud politics.
In the week and a half since Sharon's hospitalization, the American administration has been scrambling to figure out Olmert. Sources in touch with administration officials say that Olmert is perceived in America as a worthy candidate - a pragmatic centrist who, if elected, will continue on Sharon's path toward a two-state solution - albeit one who lacks Sharon's power.
SHARON OWES much of his political influence to the Bush administration. The kind of public and private backing the president has given him over the past five years has gone a long way for him domestically. Sharon was able to market his disengagement plan as one that would bring Israel even closer to its most important ally, and one that is fail-proof, because it is backed by the strongest leader on earth.
Now, with Sharon out of the picture, Olmert has less than three months to cultivate the same kind of relationship with Bush that Sharon enjoyed - in order to capitalize on it in the March 28 elections.
Olmert will most likely visit Washington next month, where he will probably get a precious photo-opportunity with the president. But the US is being careful not to make its support too obvious, fearing that overdoing it would belie its claim of impartiality regarding the internal politics of other countries. In addition, it is being cautious not to hurt the other regional leader that it is interested in strengthening - Mahmoud Abbas.
Kurtzer, who was the American front man in Israel during most of Sharon's tenure as prime minister, suggests that his former colleagues at the State Department and the White House wait to see what kind of support Olmert needs before jumping in with ideas. "I'd advise Washington not to hold on to a proactive agenda at this time," he says. "It is better to wait a while and react to the situation."
TO THE American Jewish community, Olmert may be a familiar name, but he is not a well-known figure. Random conversations during the past week with Jewish activists in several East Coast cities all involved my being asked the same questions: "Who is Ehud Olmert? What do you know about him?"
However, though the Jewish <><> is not widely knowledgeable about Olmert, the Jewish leadership knows him very well. He is a frequent speaker at Jewish events - he gave the main address, instead of Sharon, at the 2004 AIPAC annual policy conference, for example - and met with almost all leaders of major Jewish organizations when he served as mayor of Jerusalem.
Olmert is considered by these leaders to be a centrist force with wide support on both sides of the political spectrum. This puts him in a better position, they feel, than the other two candidates for prime minister, Likud leader Bibi Netanyahu and Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz. Netanyahu receives polar reactions in the US: He has staunch supporters within the Jewish community and equally bitter detractors; Peretz is totally unknown and therefore has no support whatsoever.
Though US Jewry does not play an active role in the Israeli political race, a good relationship with the largest Jewish diaspora is not only an asset for any candidate, but it is seen as a sign of political maturity and statesmanship. In this arena, Olmert has already won.
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