Politics: The challenges he faces

Olmert must examine how Peres succeeded Rabin and must find a way to succeed where Peres failed.

ehud olmert 88 (photo credit: )
ehud olmert 88
(photo credit: )
When Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert attended the funeral of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's wife, Lily, in March 2000, he made a snide remark about Sharon, who had defeated him for the Likud leadership a few months earlier. At the time, Olmert was still bitter about that campaign. Nor had their friendship and political alliance developed yet, even though they had known each other for decades and served together in the Knesset for 23 years. "Lily was a wonderful woman, who was married to a very strange man," then-Jerusalem mayor Olmert told The Jerusalem Post immediately after the funeral, as he was walking away from the isolated hilltop on Sharon's Negev ranch where Sharon had shed tears as he buried his wife. That Olmert would make such a tactless comment against Sharon seems unthinkable now, after four years during which he has been Sharon's closest political ally. But it would have seemed unthinkable then that Olmert would one day attend Sharon's funeral as prime minister. Two years after Lily's death, Olmert made a strategic decision to form a political bond with the prime minister that has paid off beyond his wildest expectations. Sharon vaulted him from the 33rd slot on the Likud list to the Ministry of Industry and Trade and added the title of vice prime minister to make up for not appointing him finance minister. Olmert used the title with pride and corrected journalists whenever they mistakenly demoted him to "deputy prime minister." Olmert fought successfully to keep the title when Shimon Peres joined the government, refusing to give it up, as if it were a prized possession. He never explained why it was so important to him to be second in command to a 77-year-old prime minister - perhaps because it was so obvious. Now that Olmert has achieved his lifetime goal, at the age of 60, under the most tragic circumstances, he has just 82 days to persuade the public to let him remain prime minister. To earn a return ticket to the Prime Minister's Office, Olmert will have to overcome many obstacles and gain the trust of a skeptical public. The last time Israel mourned a prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated and the public was in a state of shock. The rapid deterioration of Sharon's health should not have been so surprising, but just as was the case in the aftermath of Rabin's murder, it will take time for Israelis to recover from the death of a prime minister who seemed irreplaceable. Olmert can use what happened a decade ago as a model. He will have to closely examine what Peres did when he took over from Rabin as prime minister and find a way to succeed where Peres failed. Peres lost the 1996 election because, although he was seen as the bearer of Rabin's Oslo legacy, he did not inherit Rabin's reputation as a respected security man. Likewise, Olmert can claim to be the originator of Sharon's disengagement strategy, but there is a big difference between an acclaimed war hero like Sharon and Olmert, who served in the IDF as a correspondent for the military journal Bamahaneh. Another disadvantage for Olmert is that he has no real base of political support. He was elected to the Knesset three years ago by 773 Likud central committee members, and his political career might be over right now if he hadn't received unexpected support for his Knesset bid from far-right activist Moshe Feiglin. To become acting prime minister, all Olmert needed was the support of one man: Sharon. To hold on to the job, Olmert will need the votes of nearly a million people. He will have to earn the legitimacy of a serious prime ministerial candidate in a very short period of time. A recent poll taken by Sharon's strategists found that Olmert was respected by the public but not liked - the opposite of Labor chairman Amir Peretz, who is liked but not respected. Olmert will have to sell himself and make the public like him. One way of doing this might be to convince the public that he is as squeaky clean a politician as he was back in the 1970s when he led a crusade against organized crime. He was investigated in the Greek Island affair, but unlike Sharon, no charges have ever stuck to his family. Olmert will also have to erase his image as a political zigzagger. Since his election in 1973 at 28 as the youngest MK ever elected until that point, Olmert has taken many surprising steps, meandering back and forth in his political leanings and ideological orientation. THE SON of former Irgun Zva'i Leumi fighter and Herut MK Mordechai Olmert, he has a solid right-wing background, growing up in the Betar youth movement and the Revisionist-founded neighborhood of Nahalat Jabotinsky, today part of Binyamina. He initially came up in the ranks of the Likud through its left flank, and he 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 fellow Likud "prince" Dan Meridor in trying to sway prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to adopt peace initiatives in the late 1980s. As health minister in March 1991, Olmert caused a storm when he told a meeting of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington that Israel was willing to negotiate with Syria on the status of the Golan Heights. Shamir and Sharon slammed him, assuring the public that they considered the Golan an inseparable part of Israel. After years of being considered on the left side of the Likud, Olmert shifted rightward when he was elected Jerusalem mayor in 1993. During his decade in city hall, he gained a hard-line reputation for pushing for the opening of the controversial Western Wall tunnel in 1996, supporting Jewish settlement efforts in Arab neighborhoods and aggressively pursuing a policy of demolishing unauthorized construction by Arab residents. But he 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 Binyamin Netanyahu's electoral defeat. After losing the Likud leadership race to Sharon in 1999, Olmert took a break from national politics. He returned, at Sharon's invitation, in 2003, and gradually guided the prime minister leftward. Olmert's dramatic announcement in December 2003 that he would back a unilateral withdrawal from most of the territories was seen as a trial balloon for the disengagement plan that Sharon revealed 10 days later at the Herzliya Conference. The political "big bang" that happened nearly two months ago was the brainchild of Olmert together with former Laborite Haim Ramon. Olmert had intended to use Kadima as a launching pad for the race to succeed Sharon in 2010, but Sharon's premature departure will reshuffle the cards. Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit already questioned Olmert's right to lead the party in interviews on Thursday morning. At press time, Peres had not yet staked a claim to the throne vacated by Sharon, but he is also likely to threaten Olmert's leadership. Sharon was expected to announce next week that Olmert would be second on the Kadima list, ending a dispute between Olmert and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni over who would have the inside track at becoming Sharon's successor. Now Olmert will be forced to overcome challenges in his own party before he can even begin the hefty job of selling himself to the public. Sharon succeeded in drafting the support of people with a wide range of views across the political spectrum. Polls showed that a third of Israel's voters intended to vote for the Kadima Party that was created in his image. No one believes that Olmert can win as much support as Sharon had in the polls. Olmert doesn't have to win by a landslide, but he does have to win. If he doesn't succeed in attracting the support of enough Israelis to emerge victorious on March 28, his current preeminence will be brief, indeed.