Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert scored a whopping 71 percent approval rating after his first week as acting prime minister, seemingly defying initial predictions that Sharon's political camp, including his new Kadima Party, would disintegrate after his massive stroke.
Two polls published Friday indicated that support for Kadima keeps growing, and that Olmert is the overwhelming favorite to become prime minister in a March 28 general election. In the surveys, Kadima won 42 and 43 seats, respectively, in the 120-member parliament, meaning it would form the next government.
The results appeared to be a testament to Olmert's deft handling of the transition at a time of uncertainty, but also signaled continued backing in Israel for a unilateral separation from the Palestinians, by unloading much of the West Bank, regardless of who carries out the plan.
"He is going to be prime minister after the election, unless something incredible happens," said political scientist Abraham Diskin. "This first week was crucial and he passed it (the test)."
Widely perceived as abrasive and arrogant, the 60-year-old Olmert appeared genuinely shaken by his mentor's sudden departure from the political sccene. In presiding over two Cabinet meetings since Sharon's January 4 stroke, Olmert spoke in a somber voice, and made sure to sit in his regular seat at the Cabinet table, next to Sharon's oversized chair.
Olmert toned down his colorful ties and stayed clear of Sharon's deserted office, but kept in close touch with the prime minister's advisers. One newspaper reported that in a rare display of emotion, Olmert hugged and comforted the prime minister's distraught driver.
Once a popular guest on TV and radio talk shows, Olmert gave no interviews. Other than the Cabinet meetings, he only appeared in public once, for a brief economic news conference in his role as finance minister, meant to steady a jittery stock market.
In his party, he moved quickly to prevent unseemly infighting that could have damaged the electoral prospects of Kadima, the party Sharon formed after quitting the hardline Likud in November.
Olmert offered Sharon protege Tzipi Livni, a possible rival for Kadima leadership, the prestigious post of foreign minister. He reportedly promised elder statesman Shimon Peres, a breakaway from the center-left Labor Party, the number two spot on Kadima's parliament list.
However, trouble could erupt once Olmert puts together the rest of Kadima's slate in coming weeks, as candidates dissatisfied with their ranking might air their complaints in public.
On the international front, Olmert has won a supportive nod from the US government, prompting complaints by some in the opposition Labor Party that the Bush administration is meddling in Israel's election campaign.
US President George W. Bush called Olmert on Thursday to express concern over Sharon's health. Israeli officials said Olmert might visit the White House in coming weeks, presumably to map strategy after the Jan. 25 Palestinian parliament election in which the Islamic militant Hamas is expected to make a strong showing.
White House officials did not rule out an Olmert visit, but indicated Bush has not yet extended an invitation.
Olmert also spoke by phone to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II, cementing his leadership credentials.
Earlier this week, Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem, defused a possible dispute with Washington by agreeing to the participation of Arab residents of the city in the Palestinian parliament election. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas had said he would call off the election if Israel were to ban voting in Jerusalem, claimed by Israel and the Palestinians as a capital. The US has said it wants to see the election go ahead.
In Friday's opinion polls in the Hebrew-language dailies, Olmert far outscored his two main competitors for prime minister former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and ex-union boss Amir Peretz of Labor, getting more than 50 percent voter support in each. Both polls gave him an approval rating of 71 percent. The surveys, with just over 500 respondents each, had error margins of 4.4 and 4.5 percentage points, respectively.
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