Israel's Olmert from Sharon successor to statesman
JERUSALEM, Mar 22: Unlike the celebrated ex-generals or elder statesmen who served as Israel's past leaders, Ehud Olmert has no great reputation to lean on.
And that may be just how the man most likely to be the next prime minister wants it.
Catapulted into Israel's top office when Ariel Sharon was felled by a stroke two months ago, Olmert has surprised friend and foe alike by preserving the dominant Kadima party's robust lead ahead of March 28 elections.
Analysts credit Olmert -- a 60-year-old former Jerusalem mayor whose bland career-bureaucrat looks frustrate political cartoonists -- with capitalising on the popularity of the larger-than-life Sharon by promising to fulfil his vision.
But where Sharon had an old soldier's reticence, Olmert has readily expounded on how he would end conflict with the Palestinians, pledging to annex some occupied West Bank land and set Israel's borders by 2010 in the absence of peace talks.
''This -- and I speak from knowledge, as well as conviction -- is precisely what Sharon planned to pursue after the elections,'' the interim premier said in a recent interview.
Palestinians, who want a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, see Olmert as an apparatchik of Sharon, whom they despise for ordering crackdowns on their 5-year-old revolt.
But among others, Olmert might be expected to enjoy some leeway as a first-time leader, especially given the happenstance behind his rise to power.
Despite his claims to be Sharon's chosen successor, and his vigorous support for last year's Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, Olmert was a latecomer to the prime minister's inner circle.
''He (Olmert) comes in without any negatives, nor with any positives,'' said Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University. ''There is a tendency to give him room for action. This is important.''
Though still a minor player on the international stage, Olmert's domestic politics have long kept Israeli tabloids busy.
Born to a poor but scholarly ultranationalist farming family, Olmert was denied his dream of serving as an army commando due to orthopaedic problems. He would later volunteer for a gruelling infantry officer course, but never see combat.
He finished his studies early and joined parliament in 1973, aged 28, on a platform of fighting organised crime.
Between helping to crack down on high profile mobs, he found time for a lucrative legal career that raised eyebrows among peers. Allegations of impropriety arose frequently, but Olmert was quick to sue and skilled at winning his cases. ''He is one of the few politicians in Israel who has won every libel case he was involved in, which is no mean feat,'' said veteran political commentator Shimon Shiffer.
While a stalwart of the right-wing Likud, Olmert showed early signs of flexibility by breaking with more hardline colleagues to back a leftist proposal for Palestinian self-rule in the 1990s.
But he had little patience for Palestinian claims on Jerusalem once he ousted veteran Mayor Teddy Kollek in 1993. olmert championed building Jewish enclaves in the Arab eastern part of the city, which Israel captured along with the West Bank and Gaza and annexed in a move not recognised abroad.
During a decade as mayor, the suave, English-speaking Olmert displayed a flair for self-promotion -- befriending, among others, his New York counterpart Rudolph Giuliani -- even as people in Jerusalem complained of deteriorating services.
''He was not perceived as an active mayor who did anything useful, but rather one who used his position to further his efforts to get ahead in politics,'' Steinberg said.
Though he became Sharon's deputy by default, having been denied the finance portfolio, Olmert proved loyal. He weathered rightist ire by floating, in a 2003 newspaper interview, what would become Sharon's Gaza pullout plan.
When the prime minister bolted Likud infighting to form the more centrist Kadima, Olmert was among the first to follow.
Olmert cautioned that a high Palestinian birth rate meant Arabs would eventually outnumber Jews in Israeli-held areas between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean unless Israel gave up much of the land it took in the 1967 West Asia war.
While Sharon spoke of ''disengaging'' from the Palestinians, Olmert has coined a softer term that translates as ''ingathering'' or ''consolidation'' -- reflecting, analysts say, his desire to bridge Israeli divisions over the Gaza pullout before trying similar moves in the West Bank.
Shiffer suggested this inclusive approach stemmed from the famous ideological rifts in Olmert's own home. His wife, Aliza, is an outspoken liberal art enthusiast and author, whose views were largely adopted by the couple's four children.
''Olmert's family is the answer to what has not happened in Israeli politics thus far,'' Shiffer said.
But in a country born of war and obsessed with the strategic risks of peacemaking, Olmert has also been at pains not to seem too conciliatory.
He curbed ties with the Palestinian Authority after Islamic militant group Hamas won January polls, and last week sent troops to seize the accused assassins of an Israeli minister at a West Bank prison following reports they could be freed.
The Jericho jail raid prompted Israel's biggest daily to run a cartoon showing Olmert in a Napoleonic hat and epaulettes -- a wry comment given the candidate's lack of military pedigree.
''From his earliest days in politics, Olmert has wanted to be prime minister,'' said Raviv Drucker, political correspondent for Israel's Channel 10 television. ''His talent has been in emerging so gradually, so cleverly, and in managing to be so lucky.''