Analysis: Olmert's challenge

To be Sharon, and not to be Sharon.

The Ehud Olmert who delivered the Herzliya Address Tuesday night was not the Olmert the country has become accustomed to over his more than three-decades of public life. This was not the tempestuous, sharp-tongued, often provocative politician with the flashy ties who spoke his mind with abandon and floated trial balloons for his boss. This was the measured Olmert, the staid and steady Olmert, the Presidential Olmert who -in his first major address as acting prime minister - strove to step out of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's shadow, while at the same time still staying in it. From his perch now as acting prime minister, Olmert's job is to create an identity as statesman: someone with the gravity, responsibility, and sound judgment to run this country on his own. Yet, at the same time, he will need to stay true to Sharon's message - because that, after all, is the wellspring of his support. His task is daunting: to be Sharon, yet not to be Sharon, and Tuesday night he took that tightrope walk public. The overall message in his speech was definitely Sharon's. Indeed, it was vintage Sharon: commitment to the road map; insistence that the Palestinians fulfill their roadmap obligations, and warnings that if they don't the process will grind to a halt; the declaration of pain in the need for a withdrawal from parts of Eretz Yisrael for the ultimate good of the country. These were all themes that Sharon declared on numerous occasions. Where Olmert peeked out from behind Sharon was in certain nuanced changes in the overall Sharonian message. For example, it would take a lot of searching to find a public address in which Sharon said that under the road map Israel would limit settlement construction. He pledged on numerous occasions to dismantle unauthorized outposts, but rarely said - at least in public -that he would limit construction in the settlements, although this was something clearly stated in the road map. Olmert also sounded different than Sharon when he spoke about dismantling the unauthorized outposts, and said that the country "would not be deterred by the threats of a minority of hooligans." The stridency of that language sounded more like Yitzhak Rabin, than Sharon. And, most importantly, he also distanced himself form Sharon when he did not rule out further unilateral disengagement moves, something Sharon did repeatedly since the withdrawal from Gaza. Olmert intimated at something different. "Those who are in a hurry ask, because of the elections, whether the present government has already committed to another disengagement if the upcoming contacts with the Palestinians are not successful," Olmert said. "We would prefer an agreement. If our expected partner in the negotiations in the framework of the road map do not uphold their commitments, we will preserve the Israeli interest at all cost." While Sharon may very well have been thinking about future unilateral withdrawals, he rarely articulated it. Olmert clearly feels less restrained. And, finally, Olmert strayed more from the Sharon manner, than from the Sharon line, when he made reference at the end of the speech to a "glimmer of hope in the eyes of many Israelis, for the first time in many years." That type of rhetorical flourish, some would call it schmaltz, would never have made it into a Sharon address.