TEL AVIV — As Ariel Sharon lies in a Jerusalem hospital bed, fighting for his life, no one seems more naturally positioned to take up his mantle than Ehud Olmert, his top adviser and closest political ally. Viewed through the lens of the past two stormy years, the succession seems almost inevitable.
It was not always so. As recently as 1999, when Olmert battled Sharon for the Likud Party leadership, the two men seemed like blood rivals. The party was still reeling from its defeat in elections that May when it fell to 19 Knesset seats, its lowest showing since its founding in 1973. When defeated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he was quitting politics, Sharon’s candidacy was regarded as a stopgap. He was considered a political relic, utterly incapable of restoring the party’s glory. Olmert, a perpetual almost-ran known for his sharp tongue, decided to make the fight personal. “Quit now,” he teased the aging Sharon at a rally, “before you become pathetic.”
Less than seven years later, Olmert is poised to become Sharon’s heir — both as prime minister of Israel and as leader of Kadima, the party Sharon formed last fall after tiring of Likud infighting. Early polls show Olmert as a clear favorite, but he has no illusions: His popularity has little to do with his own accomplishments, and everything to do with Sharon’s.
It’s a stunning turn of events, the latest in a series of twists and turns in Olmert’s political career. Olmert, who turned 60 this past September, is a career politician (he became the youngest Knesset member at age 28) and a lifelong Herutnik, identified with the hard-line Greater Israel party once led by Menachem Begin. Indeed, he is one of the Princes of Herut, lineal heir of Begin’s so-called Fighting Family of firebrands — including Olmert’s late father, Mordechai — who fought in the pre-state Irgun underground and then followed Begin into politics.
Olmert was born in 1945 near Binyamina, a 19th-century village near Haifa where his father had a farm. As a child he suffered from the blatant discrimination openly practiced against Begin’s followers by the Labor establishment during Israel’s early years. Unlike his three brothers — one of whom, Yirmi Olmert, became a high-ranking army officer and now heads the Israeli Basketball Federation — Ehud became intensely political.
He first burst onto the public scene at age 21. Discharged after serving in the Golani infantry brigade and on the staff of the soldiers’ magazine Bamahane, Olmert did the unthinkable: He publicly demanded the resignation of the revered Begin, because of his repeated electoral failures. After the quixotic gesture, Olmert quit Herut and joined a right-wing splinter group, returning to the fold only in 1973, when the Likud was formed, at Ariel Sharon’s initiative, in a merger of Herut and smaller groups. Later that year he entered the Knesset.
While serving in the Knesset, Olmert also opened a private law practice, deftly combining his political career with a network of links to leading Israeli business figures. Knesset members have since been barred from holding outside jobs.
During the 1970s, he captured headlines repeatedly by tilting against corruption in high places. One of his crusades embroiled him in a libel suit, which he fought successfully — only to find himself accused of corruption when the party funds he secured for his defense ended up in his own law firm’s coffers. He also joined forces with fellow Young Turk and political adversary Yossi Sarid to initiate a probe of corruption in Israeli soccer. That campaign combined two of Olmert’s deepest loves: his flair for making headlines and his lifelong devotion to the Betar Jerusalem soccer team. Recently he was instrumental in helping Russian émigré Arkadi Gaidamak take control of the team.
As a politician, Olmert is known for his sharp tongue and political acumen. A deft inside operator, he managed to serve a series of party leaders — including Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Sharon — without visibly threatening their leadership. Over the years, he served uncomplainingly as a campaign manager and junior minister. Journalists valued him as a great interview — voluble, articulate and always quotable. He clashed bitterly with reporters who challenged him; still, some of his closest friends are journalists, most notably veteran commentator Dan Margalit.
In his views he was long considered far to the right. His law practice included land deals for Jewish settlements. He spoke out stridently against territorial compromise with the Palestinians, never deviating from his movement’s Greater Israel doctrine. He went so far as to oppose Begin’s 1978 peace accords with Egypt and the ensuing withdrawal from Sinai (which was carried out by none other than Defense Minister Sharon).
Within his own family, however, Olmert became what he jokingly termed “a political deviant.” His wife, Aliza, a painter, is considered left of Labor in her views, and so are Olmert’s four children.
In 1993, after Netanyahu took over the Likud and sidelined the so-called princes who were the presumed heirs, Olmert took a detour and ran for mayor of Jerusalem, defeating aging legend Teddy Kollek. His 10 years in City Hall included extensive construction and expansion, but they were marred by a steady rise in poverty and a declining tax base, as affluent, secular Israelis left for Tel Aviv and the city’s population became increasingly Orthodox. Olmert cemented an alliance with the Orthodox community, eventually handing over the mayor’s office to Orthodox leader Uri Lupolianski. “Only in Israel,” lawmaker Meir Porush of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party once asked of Olmert, “can you be a friend both of the Haredim and of Yosef Lapid,” referring to the leader the arch-secularist Shinui party.
Olmert’s mayoral period was tainted by two major embarrassments: In 1996, he was tried — and acquitted — for alleged campaign finance violations stemming from his role as treasurer of the 1988 Likud Knesset campaign; later that same year, he was instrumental in pushing then-prime minister Netanyahu to the disastrous decision to open an archaeological tunnel at the edge of the Temple Mount, leading to bloody clashes between Israeli and Palestinian security forces.
It was after Sharon became prime minister in 2001 that Olmert drew close to him. Their relationship first arose from their common distaste for Netanyahu. Olmert became a trusted adviser, chaired the Likud’s 2003 Knesset campaign and was rewarded with the post of deputy prime minister.
That December, Olmert shocked Israel by announcing an ideological about-face. Addressing an annual Ben-Gurion memorial service — as a stand-in for Sharon — he declared that Israel needed to separate from the Palestinians in order to preserve its democratic and Jewish nature. That meant unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza and parts of the West Bank and dismantling settlements there.
Coming from a deputy prime minister in a Likud government, Olmert’s words were revolutionary. He claimed that Sharon did not know in advance what he was going to say. Still, when Sharon echoed his views in a speech three weeks later, albeit in more guarded terms, Olmert was considered his muse –– a status he has held ever since. When Netanyahu resigned as finance minister in August 2005, Sharon immediately nominated Olmert, making him at last his unchallenged number two.
It is obvious that Olmert will enjoy Sharon’s family’s blessing to succeed him, if and when Sharon is declared incapable of resuming his duties. He took over Kadima seamlessly, and enjoys a healthy lead in the polls. Many Israelis, who two weeks ago didn’t consider him a possible prime minister, now rate him more deserving of the job than Netanyahu, Amir Peretz or any other candidate. For Olmert it has been a long, strange road — but he finally seems ready for the ultimate challenge.