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.
JERUSALEM AND TEL AVIV — 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.
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, 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.
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.
Mohammed Dejani, a political science professor at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, says that Palestinians are concerned that as prime minister, Olmert may be prone to become more hard-line to make up for his lack of military credentials.
"What we fear is that he'll want to prove himself by going more toward the right," he says.
A prominent student activist in the 1970s, Olmert was a member of a libertarian party that eventually formed Likud.
He served in several ministerial positions between 1988 and 1992. But what most people remember is his decision to move into prime-time city politics in 1993, when he defeated long-serving Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. Mr. Kollek struck a conciliatory tone and tried to bring better services to the poorer, Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in 1967 and later annexed.
But Olmert said his goal was to keep Jerusalem united under Israeli sovereignty, and promoted the construction of controversial new Jewish enclaves in exclusively Arab areas of East Jerusalem. In 1996, several months after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Olmert campaigned against Labor Party successor Mr. Peres with the slogan "Peres will divide Jerusalem." As mayor, Olmert also shut down the Orient House, the Palestinian headquarters in East Jerusalem.
In one of his most contentious moves, in 1996 Olmert opened a tunnel in the Old City of Jerusalem that spilled out into the Muslim quarter, which Palestinians viewed as a change in the status quo - one that dictates that no structural changes be made in the highly sensitive districts, home to key religious sites. Ensuing riots continued for weeks, and represented the first major collapse into violence since the breakthrough Oslo peace deal in 1993.
But Professor Dejani says some Palestinians view his stint as mayor in favorable terms, compared to today. "For the Palestinians at the time, fewer homes were demolished. The municipality wasn't taking the extreme measures they are taking now. He used to do outreach to the Arabs that others didn't care to do," he says.
Palestinian elections are scheduled to take place at the end of this month, but on the eve of Sharon's stroke were close to being postponed.
In addition to internal Palestinian fighting, Sharon had so far refused to allow East Jerusalem Palestinians to vote in the elections. Without them, Palestinian officials say, the elections will not be held.
Given that dispute, one of Olmert's first challenges may be declaring Israel's policy on those East Jerusalemites - people who get Israeli social services such as national healthcare but were given the right, under the Olso Peace Accords, to vote in Palestinian Authority elections.
Prof. Shlomo Hassan, who was an advisor to Mr. Kollek, Jerusalem's mayor before Olmert, says that Olmert is adept at forging alliances. But Professor Hassan charges that Olmert abandoned Kollek's path of inclusivity, instead making a marriage of convenience with ultra-Orthodox Jews and right-wing nationalists, even though Olmert himself is more liberal and is secular.
"Olmert discovered the new trends in local politics and the leading parties, and he went along with them," says Hassan, a geography professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the deputy director of the Floersheimer Institute, a Jerusalem think-tank. "On the negative side, he has no vision and no strategy.
"He is not a kind of statesman who can lead us in the future of Israel," predicts Hassan.
"But he was never a right-wing hawk: He was always at the center and he always is where the wind is blowing, and he knows very well that about 65 to 70 percent of the Israeli public supports the two-state solution with the Palestinians," he says.