Ehud Olmert: an unloved vote winner

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If Ehud Olmert next week
fulfills a life-long ambition to become prime minister of Israel, it will not be on the basis of his personal popularity. In a telling response to pollsters, evidently running out of questions to ask the public in one of the country’s least animated election campaigns, only one in eight Israelis queried said they would want him as a dinner partner.

It is a statistic that might floor a more sensitive candidate. But Mr Olmert has grown a tough skin during an abrasive political career spanning more than four decades in which he has rarely gone out of his way to court the public’s affection.

Comparing him with his nearest rivals, Labour’s Amir Peretz and Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Nadav Eyal, the daily Maariv’s commentator, wrote: “The difference between him and the other two is that Olmert has never sought love. He just wants to win.”

The acting prime minister is a career politician, a relatively rare phenomenon in a country that during its 58-year history has been principally governed at the top by a succession of founding fathers and ex-generals.

Absent is the whiff of cordite that trailed the likes of Ariel Sharon, perhaps the last example of a disappearing breed. Mr Olmert favours elegant suits, Havana cigars and a daily six-mile jog. It is a style perhaps better suited to a maturing Israeli state in which sociologists note the decline of ideology and the rise of a more hard-headed pragmatism, a longing for bourgeois normality in the midst of a deeply perceived existential threat.

The frontiersmen of the West Bank settlements, once fêted by rightwing politicians such as Mr Olmert, are rapidly going the way of the almost extinct socialist kibbutzniks as models of Zionist idealism.

So, even though they may not like him very much, enough Israelis are apparently prepared to vote for him next Tuesday as the standard-bearer of the new centrism to hand him sufficient seats to form the next coalition government. They probably would have preferred Mr Sharon as a safer and more experienced pair of hands. But the stroke that incapacitated the prime minister in January catapulted his successor into power earlier than had been expected.

The fact that his elevation owed more to accident than design did not mean, however, that it was one for which Mr Olmert had not long prepared. He is said to have dreamt of becoming prime minister since he was a boy growing up in the uncertain first decade of the new state, an ambition that was to win out over a parallel obsession with soccer.

He was born in 1945 to a Russian-born father and Ukrainian-born mother, activists in the militant rightwing Irgun that harried the British in the closing years of their mandate. His political home was the revisionist Herut party, a movement that brooded on the sidelines during the first three decades of Labour Zionist domination before coming to power in 1977 as the most ideological element of the rightist Likud bloc.

Unlike Mr Sharon, latest in a line of powerful mentors to whom he attached himself, Mr Olmert was a political princeling, heir to a pre-state tradition that dreamt of an Israel that would span both banks of the Jordan river. He was a member of the rightwing Betar youth movement and remains a loyal supporter of the Betar Jerusalem soccer team that bears its name. Mr Olmert, however, has travelled considerably further than many of his fellow fans, whose aggressive anti-Arabism has given the club a reputation for unbridled ­jingoism.

While his political transformation in recent years is seen by some rivals as political opportunism, Mr Olmert never entirely fitted the mould of unreconstructed rightist. He first made his mark as a precocious 20-year-old, eight years before he was to become the youngest member of the Knesset, when he upbraided Menachem Begin, the veteran Herut leader, for losing six elections in a row and called on him to resign.

He was among those of Yitzhak Shamir’s inner circle who in 1990 persuaded the then prime minister to start peace talks with the Palestinians and Israel’s other Arab neighbours. A Herut heir, he married a committed leftwinger, the artist and writer Aliza Richter, of whom he joked: “Thirty five years of Aliza working on me are at last starting to bear fruit.”

For a decade from 1993, Mr Olmert laboured in the relative backwater of the Jerusalem mayor’s office after Mr Netanyahu, three years his junior, won the Likud leadership. He used his municipal role in part to promote the expansion of Jewish settlements around the city.

Mr Sharon summoned him back to national politics for the 2003 election, although the low 34th place he secured on the Likud electoral list was a reflection of his lack of popularity within the ruling party. He coveted the finance minister’s post that went to Mr Netanyahu. But the consolation prize of the deputy premiership put him in poll position when Mr Sharon was felled by a stroke.

During Mr Sharon’s second term, he emerged as the prime minister’s most loyal ally and most trusted aide. He embraced and promoted Mr Sharon’s politically risky plan to turn his back on a legacy of expansion and disengage unilaterally from Palestinian territories for which Israel had no long-term use. Both men argued it was the only way to preserve Israel’s existence as both a democratic and Jewish state.

In some ways, Mr Olmert had moved beyond his mentor, who, despite a career aggressively promoting the settler cause, was ultimately seen as returning to his Labour Zionist roots.

Mr Olmert, who had long since burnt his bridges with much of the Likud leadership, is credited with encouraging Mr Sharon to abandon it and form the Kadima party as a platform for possible further territorial moves.

The new centrist faction has faltered slightly in opinion polls since Mr Sharon’s exit from the political scene, but Mr Olmert’s delicate handling of the succession has won him plaudits for statesmanship even among those who baulked in the past at his argumentative style.

He has declined to occupy the prime minister’s seat until he earns it on his own merit and has been sparing in his usual sharp-tongued criticism of his rivals. His enemies on the right have nevertheless accused him of exploiting the Sharon legacy by posing as natural heir-apparent.

Apart from set-piece interviews, he has been remarkably absent from a generally low-key campaign. Perhaps it is the right approach towards an electorate that would not invite him for dinner.

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