Analysis: Olmert's Solomonic quest

One week after his emergency landing in the prime minister's seat, Ehud Olmert has yet to put a foot wrong. Though immediately besieged by countless political pressures, diplomatic challenges, and administrative dilemmas, a remarkably patient Olmert is so far skillfully avoiding the many pitfalls and land mines surrounding him, each of which can almost instantaneously eject him from the summit at which he has so improbably arrived. The first trap he avoided was the one that brought down King David's self-appointed successor, Adonijah, who rode a chariot accompanied by 50 armed horsemen and feasted publicly with some of his father's loyalists while the king was still alive. Eventually, Solomon was crowned and Adonijah was executed. Olmert is clearly no Adonijah. He kept public appearances at a minimum, lest anyone suspect he is out to disinherit Ariel Sharon, even if his incumbency has become theoretical. Olmert wasn't tempted to play the successor, whether by taking Sharon's seat, moving into his office, scattering interviews or even just saying anything off the cuff. Instead, he repeated that as far as he is concerned the prime minister is merely temporarily incapacitated, and that he, Olmert, is merely substituting until the boss returns. That is also why he dedicated his only public appearance this week to his role as finance minister, an appearance that in its substance was optimistic and in its effect was soothing, as reflected in the financial markets' quickly restored stability. Olmert's apparent aim, to keep a low profile but at the same time take decisions where necessary, has already nipped in the bud two pressing problems that could have mushroomed into larger crises, one diplomatic, the other political. First, he decided to allow voting in east Jerusalem post offices for the PA's imminent parliamentary elections, and at the same time he banned Hamas from campaigning there. Thus, Olmert avoided a diplomatic dead-end and also deprived the PA of an excuse it is desperately seeking for delaying an election in which it faces setbacks. Secondly, on the partisan front, Olmert threw a bone to the familiarly disgruntled Shimon Peres by promising him Kadima's next slot in its list after Olmert. While this move placated Peres, it still stopped short of promising him a senior portfolio, like the Foreign Ministry, which is now designated for Tzipi Livni, whom Olmert persuaded to nobly move down one rung. Israeli experience teaches that once a Knesset is sworn in no one remembers the slots through which its lawmakers entered it. Olmert, for instance, was the Likud's 37th candidate in the outgoing Knesset. Shimon Peres would therefore do well to keep his latest title in proportion, and perhaps recall how he himself once placed lackluster party activist Shoshana Arbeli-Almoslino in Labor's second Knesset slot, well ahead of his arch-nemesis at the time Yitzhak Rabin, a status that did not eventually prevent Rabin's appointment as defense minister and Almoslino's as health minister. As long as Sharon's premiership is not formally cut short by the attorney-general, as it may be later this month, such moves are about as much as Olmert can afford to make. They may not be numerous or dramatic, but they certainly unveil a willingness to take decisions and an ability to produce clever solutions to complex situations. Olmert's performance is even more impressive when compared with Binyamin Netanyahu's squabbling with his party's ministers, and with Amir Peretz seeing yet another campaign manager's departure. Olmert seems much more on top of his exceptionally tough situation than his rivals are on theirs. Then again, in terms of what a prime minister routinely deals with, Olmert's first week was a cakewalk. Treating Peres's hurt pride will pale in comparison with say, multiple suicide attacks, a Syrian coup, or Iranian provocations. And even these daunting tasks may prove simpler than putting together Kadima's list in a way that antagonizes a minimum of would-be candidates, and impresses a maximum of would-be voters. The voters, after all, don't just want someone smarter than Adonijah; they want Solomon.