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Can Sharon's deputy champion Israel's middle?

Ehud Olmert is acting prime minister, but some doubt he has the support to lead Ariel Sharon's centrist Kadima Party.

By Ilene R. Prusher, / January 9, 2006


Ehud Olmert joined the Knesset nearly 33 years ago, and was soon hailed as one of the Likud party's "young princes," the political movers and shakers of the right.

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But Sunday, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lay in a drug-induced coma, many here wondered whether Olmert, now acting prime minister, has the leadership qualities to assume Mr. Sharon's mantle, and takeover the newly fashioned centrist party, Kadima. A crucial election for Israel is scheduled for late March.

"The shoes of Sharon are big for anyone, but out of those who can do it, Olmert can do it better than anyone. Because he is a very talented man. He's very sharp," says Roni Milo, a former longtime Likud member and Olmert contemporary.

And yet, in Israel's political climate, that may not be enough. Olmert is often described as being respected but not necessarily well-liked, as more of a right-hand man than a natural leader. Israeli pundits portray him as a potentially adept bridge-builder who is good at networking with elites, but doesn't enjoy grass-roots support.

"His problem is that he is not a popular person. He is perceived as quite an arrogant person," says Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University. Still, Olmert is "quite a talented person, and Sharon was not a person to overlook such qualities," he says.

Olmert's controversial path

Olmert, a lawyer who has long been seen as a member of the more moderate wing of the Likud party, served as Jerusalem's mayor for nine years.

Though some Israelis considered him to have done a good job, Olmert often made controversial moves vis-à-vis Israeli control over East Jerusalem, which is claimed by Palestinians as the capital of their future state.

But since Sharon's disengagement plan this summer, Olmert has been portrayed by some observers as an articulate and capable politician who influenced Sharon.

"He is not Sharon, but in a very short time he can move forward, and the shoes will be properly filled," says Mr. Milo. "He started to talk about this possibility of unilateral disengagement, and to talk about two states for two peoples before Sharon. He was very brave to do it, because in the Likud party they didn't like it."

Among other challenges, Olmert will have to work hard for brand-name recognition, trying to hold onto politicians who have recently quit one or two of the big parties - Likud and left-leaning Labor - in order to join Sharon's Kadima Party. These include former Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shimon Peres, who, according to media reports, will have to be offered a key ministry to ensure that he stays in Kadima. Other senior members of Kadima include Tzipi Livni, a well-liked minister of justice; former internal security agency (Shin Bet) chief Avi Dichter; and Shaul Mofaz, who was a former defense minister and army chief-of-staff.

Other well-known names in Israeli politics had also signed up with Sharon: Meir Shitreet, formerly of the Likud, as well as Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik, formerly of the Labor Party.

By to keep some of these senior figures in the fledgling party that Sharon had just founded with the intention moving forward in the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, Olmert will have to show that the party is about the concept as much as it was about the man.

Kadima's other rising stars

Ms. Livni is considered popular enough to have been a contender for a top slot in Kadima, but the young up-and-comer withdrew her candidacy in favor of Olmert's. Israeli media estimated that she would probably receive a prominent role, such as foreign minister. Meanwhile, others in Kadima have had a higher profile in the military, which has usually catapulted careers here like no other credential.

Unlike Sharon, Olmert does not carry have a war-heavy résumé. Olmert had served a combat infantry unit officer, and was a military correspondent for a journal of the Israel Defense Forces.