Diplomacy: Who's advising the acting PM?

One of Olmert's strengths is that he knows the Big World - and he knows it well.

ehud olmert profile 88 (photo credit: )
ehud olmert profile 88
(photo credit: )
Some two years ago, Ehud Olmert - then "only" deputy prime minister and minister of industry and trade - had a desire for a private conversation with the National Security Council's Elliott Abrams, one of the key figures shaping White House policy in the region. Olmert, who is well aware of how to work the corridors of power in Washington, needed a phone number. But instead of trying to get the number from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's top adviser, Dov Weisglass, who knows Abrams well and was Sharon's point man to the White House, Olmert chose an indirect route. It was clear he didn't want Weisglass to know of a meeting he was trying to schedule. This meeting, in the end, did not take place - because the White House did not want to bypass Sharon's powerful adviser. Fast forward to this week, and the arrival in the region of Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn. Under Sharon, Weisglass did the heavy lifting with Wolfensohn. Sure, Wolfensohn would meet Sharon on every visit, but the serious business was conducted with Weisglass. This time, after Weisglass heard that Wolfensohn and Olmert had set up a one-on-one meeting, he scrambled in a way that he did not have to do in the past to schedule his own t te- -t te with the Quartet envoy. Telling? Perhaps. Ever since Sharon suffered the massive stroke on January 4 that thrust Olmert into the driver's seat, both Olmert and Sharon's top aides have said repeatedly that there would be no personnel changes in the Prime Minister's Office, and that everything would run as it had so far - at least until the elections. Sharon's team of advisers praised Olmert for what they termed his "sensitivity" - realizing that the people closest to Sharon, those who worked with him for years on a daily basis, were in shock, undergoing a not insignificant emotional crisis. If the country seemed to be getting on with life even as the prime minister lay in a coma at Hadassah University Hospital, those who work in his office were not having as easy a time. Olmert understood one thing right off the bat: that in order to ensure a smooth transition of power, he needed to keep the same staff in place - to keep the same people in key positions in those key positions - and not have their trauma over the incapacitation of Sharon be compounded by a concern about where they stood in the overall pecking order. Their positions were secure, he said. Even though Olmert made clear that, as far as the daily workings of the Prime Minister's Office were concerned, everything was stable, obviously things were not the same. They couldn't be. A new boss - even if he is termed a temporary replacement - brings his own strengths and weaknesses. One of Olmert's strengths is that he knows the Big World - and he knows it well. Not only does he know it, but he is also comfortable in it. He reads and speaks English effortlessly. In fact, he starts his morning - which begins between 5:30-6:00 a.m. - first by reading the Israeli papers, and then by going online to peruse the international press. One of the reasons Weisglass was so invaluable for Sharon was because he brought with him a knowledge of how things work in the US, of who needs to be charmed, and how to do it. He brought a degree of wider-world savvy - of complete ease in English; of how to schmooze in Washington; of what jokes to tell which policy-makers in the White House - that Sharon lacked. But on all these counts, Weisglass has nothing up on Olmert. Olmert understands Washington, and knows how to work it as well - if not better - than Weisglass. In the early 90s, Olmert, then a health minister in Yitzhak Shamir's government, played a role for Shamir similar to that which Weisglass played for Sharon: He was sent on various diplomatic missions because Shamir trusted him. He learned from that. Which doesn't mean that Olmert doesn't need Weisglass. Indeed, Weisglass was instrumental in the first days following Sharon's stroke in reassuring Washington that there would be a continuity of policy. He also needs Weisglass for different reasons, since he cannot go everywhere, or talk with everyone. He does not need him, however, to open doors, blaze the trail, conduct the crucial small talk. He can do that on his own. Which may explain why Weisglass, who was always at Sharon's side at key events, is far less visible around Olmert. He was not with him at the Herzliya Conference address, for example. It also may explain why he pushed for the meeting with Wolfensohn - because of a feeling that the parameters of his position were subtly changing. In other words, the fulcrum of power seems to be swinging, though one official close to Olmert said Weisglass will have a role if Olmert wins the upcoming elections. OLMERT, OBVIOUSLY, has his own trusted staff of advisers who are now working behind the scenes but who, if he wins the election, will move into more prominent positions. One of these is Ovad Yehezkel, a military intelligence veteran who hooked up with Olmert and has been his key adviser since he became Jerusalem's mayor in 1993 (until 2003). Yehezkel has taken a central role in preparing Olmert for meetings, and in coordinating with the staff at the Prime Minister's Office. Olmert, who exercises three days a week for an hour on a treadmill in his office at the Industry and Trade Ministry, starts the work-morning with security briefings from Sharon's military secretary, Gadi Shamni, and other top security officials. On Sundays, he before the weekly cabinet meeting, he meets with Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon, the PMO's director-general Ilan Cohen, and Sharon's media adviser, Assi Shariv. He does not have any set meetings with Weisglass, but talks with him "as the need arises." Since he is not only running the country, but also running an election, Olmert also meets once a week with his key political and campaign strategists, who happen to be the same ones Sharon used - Uri Shani, Yoram Rabad, Reuven Adler, Eyal Arad and Lior Horev. Olmert also meets once a day with Finance Ministry officials, since, after all, he is still the finance minister. Because of security considerations, all the meetings are held at his office in the Ministry of Industry and Trade. In addition, Olmert chairs the security cabinet once a week, holds meetings with visiting statesmen, and convenes various other meetings as the need arises - such as Wednesday's meetings on the security fence and Thursday evening's emergency meeting on the PA elections. Yehezkel prepares Olmert for the meetings, and - according to various participants - Olmert is very much in charge. ONE OFFICIAL said that Olmert has insisted on the same type of tight communications regimen that characterized Sharon's tenure. Sharon talked little to the press, and was heard most often at public events. Olmert, who was arguably the most frequently interviewed minister in Sharon's cabinet, has also stopped talking. And he has even urged his ministers not to do too much talking either. Where Sharon had difficulty enforcing this discipline, Olmert is having an easier time - largely because the ministers are all from his party and now very much dependent on his success. Everyone has fallen into line. Indeed, his firm policy over the last two weeks on dismantling Amona and taking the settlers out of Hebron's wholesale market has been interpreted by some as an attempt to set new ground rules inside the government, and to force the defense ministry - which in the past has argued that the time was not auspicious to take on the settlers - to fall into line behind him, as well. It seems, one diplomatic official said, that he wanted to be seen as setting the policy, and not have the military establishment set it for him. In addition to Yehezkel, Olmert is being served by two other long-time aides - Shula Zaken, who is in charge of his appointments and who has been with him since 1974; and his media adviser, Haggai Elias, who has been at his side since 1989. Shariv - in keeping with the continuity Olmert wanted to retain - remains the Prime Ministers Office's spokesman. But Olmert does consult with Elias. OVER THE LAST few weeks, Hadassah University Hospital has been describing Sharon's condition as "critical, but stable." This description could also be used to describe the state of the nation: the "critical" part likely to be compounded by Hamas's victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections; the "stable" part due in no small way to Olmert's long preparation for this role. Since he entered the Knesset 32 years ago, Olmert seems to have been grooming himself for the job of leader. Indeed, in 1980 - when he was only 35 - he was introduced to a group of oversees students at the Hebrew University's One Year program by political science professor Meron Medzini as a man who would one day be the country's prime minister. Two years ago, he told The Jerusalem Post journalists, in a typical example of his knack for not underestimating himself, that when he scanned the political field, he had a tough time identifying anyone who had anything up on him. As a former minister of health, a minister of industry and trade, minister of communications, and mayor of Jerusalem, he understands well how government works. Aides say that he has a phenomenal memory, makes clear and quick decisions on the spot, and is not rattled under pressure. One test of his nerve came last Thursday, the day of the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, the first terrorist attack since he began filling in for Sharon. At the time, Olmert was in the middle of a meeting with the Prime Minister's Office's staff. When he received the news of the bombing, one of the participants suggested that the meeting be interrupted for him to deal with the crisis. He responded that the country was not capriciously run from moment to moment - that "the system can deal with it." He also said, referring to his tenure as Jerusalem mayor, that he was the country's "champion" in dealing with terrorist acts. He spoke by phone with Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, received security briefings, talked with Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra and Tel Aviv Mayor Huldai, and continued on with his scheduled meeting. Olmert looked - a participant in the meeting said - like he'd been doing this forever. Which is exactly the impression he is trying to create, both inside the government and with the public. If the polls showing a huge Kadima victory in the spring are any indication, so far he is succeeding.