Analysis: A life-size prime minister

Olmert has never been more than a politician; there is no mythos.

olmert waving 88 (photo credit: )
olmert waving 88
(photo credit: )
Ehud Olmert will not be the first member of "Dor Hamedina," the generation that grew up after the establishment of the state, to be sworn in as prime minister. But unlike his two contemporaries, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, he has never been seen as larger than life. While Netanyahu was the magician who swept to power against incredible odds, and Barak was - briefly - the hero who was going to fix all the nation's ills in one fell swoop, Olmert has never been anything more than a professional politician, albeit probably the most experienced and skilled of his generation. But that's all. There is no mythos surrounding him. Born too late to fight for independence, he has never received a medal or appeared on the UN podium to defend Israel against a hundred hostile states. He is a career politician and, as the son of a career politician, the first second-generation MK and the only "Likud Prince" to become prime minister. Ehud Olmert is Israel's first life-size prime minister and polls show that despite winning the elections, he is still far from being popular with the wider public. Ever since he first entered the Knesset as a 29-year-old 32 years ago, he's been preparing himself for today. No prime minister has served more years in the Knesset and in the cabinet before reaching the top job, not even Shimon Peres. He passed through all the rungs on the way, from parliamentary assistant, faction secretary, junior MK maneuvering between the splinter parties that eventually formed the Likud, junior minister, health minister and nine years as Jerusalem mayor that included an unsuccessful run for the Likud leadership against Ariel Sharon. Then he was rescued from city hall by that same Sharon, who appointed him a senior minister and vice premier. Then four months ago, he became prime minister by default. Despite the trauma of suddenly replacing the comatose Sharon and running an election campaign in his absence, Olmert's real test will begin this evening after he is officially sworn in as prime minister, not "acting" or "interim." Now it's the real thing. How will Olmert's extensive experience, combined with the public's low expectations of him, shape his term as prime minister? Olmert was included this week in Time magazine's list of 100 people who shape the world. The choice might seem rather strange when one looks at the rather limited and hamstrung coalition he has managed to cobble together so far. But Zev Chafets, who wrote Olmert's entry for the magazine, hailed him as a "dealmaker." Indeed, this has been Olmert's main expertise over the years. He managed to get hospital managers and the health funds to agree on restructuring the hospitals, forged an alliance between the Likud and the haredi parties that enabled him to be elected mayor in 1993 and, three years later, he got Netanyahu elected. He brokered the deal that sat the National Religious Party and anti-religious Shinui around the same coalition table. He has managed to keep the makeshift Kadima raft afloat on increasingly stormy waters, ever since Captain Sharon fell overboard. But can he pull it off again? Will he be able to build parliamentary majorities behind the radical "convergence" plan that promises to be even more traumatic than last summer's disengagement? Will he be able to pass budgets and further financial reform despite the increasing demands from his coalition partners for increased spending for social issues and haredi interests? And most of all, can he manage to remain prime minister for the next four years when just about everybody, including quite a few disgruntled members of his own party, are out to get him? And does he have any hopes of reelection? The impossible structure of the new Knesset, more split among rival parties - none of them of any significant size - than ever suggests that the answer to all these questions is "no." On the other hand, Olmert, with his experience and political expertise, might be the only leader with a chance to wheel and deal his way out of the woods.