From officer’s school to PM’s office, Olmert guided by skill, drive and luck

By Dan Baron, JTA

JERUSALEM — At age 34, Ehud Olmert became an “Old Man. ” That was the nickname the then-Likud Party parliamentarian earned from fellow cadets in the Israeli army officer’s course for which he volunteered in 1980, taking four months off from family and career. He would never fire a shot in anger. But for Olmert, the son of fervently Zionist pioneers, the very act of joining the junior brass went some way toward making up for a mandatory military service spent far from the battlefield because of medical problems.

“I had the feeling that as a soldier I didn’t do what I thought I had it in me to do, and wanted to do, ” Olmert wrote in a diary that he later published.

A quarter-century later, Olmert was elected Israeli prime minister on Tuesday, and his decision to enroll in the officer’s course — with its mixture of patriotism and self-promotion — appears prescient.

Veteran observers of the lawyer-cum-lawmaker, who served a decade as Jerusalem mayor before becoming the country’s leader, describe a career that has combined skill, drive and not a little luck.

“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. “

Lacking the achievements in war and peace that have sustained other Israeli politicians, Olmert happily worked in the shadow of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after the ex-general’s re-election in 2003.

Olmert was an aggressive advocate of last year’s Gaza Strip withdrawal — fending off attacks on the plan by his long-time rival, Benjamin Netanyahu — and he was quick to follow Sharon when the prime minister bolted the Likud to form the more centrist Kadima Party.

When Sharon suffered a crippling stroke in January, Olmert, as his deputy, took over. It was a crisis, a time for damage-control, for a solid bureaucrat rather than a brilliant statesman. At that, Olmert excelled.

Perhaps it was due to his years as mayor, a role he carried out with relish — and a good deal of controversy.

Unlike his predecessor, Teddy Kollek, Olmert made no bones about courting the city’s Orthodox sector and building up Jewish neighborhoods in predominantly Arab areas of eastern Jerusalem.

The occasional fracas gave him ample opportunity to appear in the international press. It also consolidated his reputation as a scion of the political right-wing, though there was a price to pay: the departure of many of Jerusalem’s secular, left-wing residents.

Having entered the Knesset at age 28 on a pledge to fight organized crime, Olmert had a keen appreciation both for populism and for the power of wealth. Suave and athletic, he pursued a lucrative legal career and dodged a slew of corruption allegations, sniping back at any and all accusers.

Throughout, Olmert managed to convey a sense of humor — or, his detractors would argue, cynicism. Some attribute this to the fact that his wife, Aliza, and their four children are Olmert’s polar opposites politically. Olmert once quipped that, as diehard supporters of liberal causes, his family had never voted for him.

Olmert’s tone sobered somewhat after he became interim prime minister, and he took an ideologically moderate line that surprised and angered some supporters who knew him as a right-winger. Yet he continued to be the no-nonsense, pragmatic decision-maker.

After suspending ties with the Palestinian Authority following Hamas’ victory in January parliamentary elections, Olmert declared that, if peace talks remain stalled, he would set Israel’s border — and annex major West Bank settlement blocs — by 2010.

“The Israeli people hasn’t the time or the need to wait 20 years for Hamas to mature, ” he said in a television interview.

On receiving world that the Palestinian Authority planned to release a terrorist squad jailed for assassinating Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in 2001, Olmert sent commandos to seize them in the West Bank. Few remembered that Olmert and Ze’evi had exchanged fiery libel lawsuits in the 1980s.

Olmert also drew battle lines with settlers, ordering a bruising police crackdown on an unauthorized West Bank outpost in what could presage future evacuations in the territory.

In contrast to Sharon’s refusal to discuss his key diplomatic plans in detail, Olmert’s openness represented “an end to ambiguity, ” the liberal newspaper Ha’aretz noted. At the least, it set the election agenda.

Many analysts suggested that Olmert’s forthrightness was intended to compensate for his perceived lack of experience in matters of national strategy and security.

“The special power of Sharon derived from the fact he did not have to prove anything, ” Doron Rosenblum wrote in Ha’aretz. “If only we could finally get a prime minister who would stand up and not feel inferior because he is a civilian.”