olmert knesset 298 88 aj.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
In 2003 Industry, Trade, and Labor Minister Ehud Olmert's dramatic announcement that he would back a unilateral withdrawal from most of the territories surprised many in the political world, because such statements are normally heard from representatives of the Left and not from one of the Likud's 'princes.' The son of former IZL fighter and Herut MK Mordechai Olmert, he grew up in the Betar youth movement and was raised in the revisionist-founded Nahalat Jabotinsky, today part of Binyamina.
But since 1974 when he became the youngest MK then ever elected, Olmert has made countless controversial statements and taken many surprising steps that straddled the border between Right and Left. He has managed to meander back and forth in his political leanings and ideological orientation.
In the 1970s, Olmert gained fame for joining then-Labor MK Yossi Sarid in a crusade against organized crime, implicating future minister Rehavam Ze'evi in the process. Olmert gained many enemies in the Likud when he joined efforts to try to unseat legendary leader Menachem Begin.
Twice during the 1980s he went against his party's grain by floating the idea - first proposed by Moshe Dayan - of unilaterally implementing autonomy for the Palestinians. He joined his fellow Likud prince Dan Meridor in trying to sway prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to adopt peace initiatives in the late 1980s.
When Olmert served as minister-without-portfolio responsible for Arab affairs from 1988-90, he was considered a strong advocate of improving services for the Arab community, but he spurred a crisis in Jewish-Arab relations in October 1989 when he was quoted as saying that the channeling of aid by Israeli Arabs to Palestinians in the territories constituted 'anti-Israeli action' that called into question their loyalty to the state. He later said he had been misquoted.
As health minister in March 1991, Olmert caused a storm when he told a meeting of AIPAC in Washington that Israel was willing to negotiate with Syria on the status of the Golan Heights.
Shamir and Ariel Sharon slammed him, assuring the public that the Golan is an inseparable part of Israel and was not up for discussion.
After years of being considered on the left side of the Likud, Olmert shifted rightward when he was elected mayor of Jerusalem in 1993. In his decade as mayor, Olmert gained more of a hard-line reputation after pushing for the opening of the controversial Western Wall Tunnel in 1993, supporting the Jewish settlement efforts in Arab neighborhoods and aggressively pursuing a policy of demolishing any unauthorized construction by Arab residents.
But Olmert gradually shifted leftward again, beginning in 1998 when he praised Ehud Barak's commitment to an undivided Jerusalem, becoming the star of Barak's campaign commercials and helping ensure prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's electoral defeat. He later unsuccessfully urged the Likud to enter Barak's government.
After losing the Likud leadership race to Sharon in 1999, Olmert took a break from national politics, only to return at Sharon's invitation to serve as his campaign manager in the 2003 election and as his deputy in the government. Olmert was the force behind the decision to reject the Likud's historic bond with the haredim in favor of Shinui.
Within one week in September, Olmert went from saying that Israel should consider killing Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to hosting opposition leader Shimon Peres's 80th birthday celebration. Olmert faced the wrath of the Right two weeks ago when he agreed to signify which Israeli exports come from the territories, and reached a climax with Friday's statements about withdrawing from the territories.
Throughout his years of political zigzagging, Olmert shifted to wherever the political situation dictated that he should be. In the future battle to succeed Sharon, leadership candidates Netanyahu, Silvan Shalom, and Shaul Mofaz are all firmly to the right, leaving a niche for Olmert in the moderate end of the Likud.
It remains to be seen whether his decision to shift firmly to the left will help him capture the premiership or lead him in the direction of Meridor, Roni Milo, and Yitzhak Mordechai, who made a similar shift and are now all out of politics. Or will he just shift rightward again and hope no one remembers