Israel's heir apparent
Ehud Olmert is best positioned to carry on the surprising
legacy of Ariel Sharon
by Mara Rudman
Friday, January 13, 2006
JERUSALEM -- With
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon struggling for his life, some may
rush to buy hard-line right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu's latest pitch that
he is the natural choice to be Israel's next leader. Conventional wisdom
has it that Shimon Peres' time has passed and the leader of the Labor
Party, Amir Peretz, is not yet ready for center stage. And Mr. Netanyahu
is working hard to elbow Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister, out of
that center stage spotlight.
But his approach is
not working everywhere. My dinner host in Jerusalem the other evening
proclaimed that "Ehud Olmert is the smartest politician in Israel, and
the Israeli people are smart enough to realize that. He will be the next
elected prime minister."
was unusual not only because of the confidence with which it was stated
in this time of maximum uncertainty in the region, but also because the
speaker was not an Israeli Jew. He was not even a Palestinian resident
of Jerusalem who might have been a former constituent of Mr. Olmert's
when he was Jerusalem's mayor. Rather, he is a well-respected Palestinian
businessman from Gaza, a practical and pragmatic longtime peace activist.
Why is it significant
that such a man offers such a strong endorsement of Ehud Olmert? What
does it mean for Mr. Olmert as a politician? For the state of Israel?
For the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations?
It means that Ehud
Olmert has traveled a long personal distance from his far-right campaign
for mayor of Jerusalem. Whether it was the reported influence of his left-leaning
wife and daughters, or his greater exposure as mayor to the daily lives
of the many Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, or his increasing exposure
to the difficult choices that a democratic Israel faced if it failed to
confront its own extremist settler population, he moved step by step to
Some would say he
led the way, or played the role of the canary in the mine shaft to his
leader, Ariel Sharon, by laying out plans that were a few degrees further
out than Mr. Sharon himself might go, testing the waters.
It was Ehud Olmert
who first proposed a dramatic plan for unilateral withdrawal from significant
portions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Mr. Sharon's narrower plan for
Gaza and limited West Bank disengagement was implemented in Gaza in the
summer of 2005.
It is rumored that
following the creation of the centrist Kadima party, Mr. Sharon's next
step would have been to implement Mr. Olmert's West Bank unilateral withdrawal
proposal following upcoming Israeli elections in March. It may still become
Israel's way forward.
But Ehud Olmert is
not just smart. He has a personal style that has evolved along with his
His manner in both
Hebrew and English is easygoing. In English, only Mr. Netanyahu is his
better in easy rapport with an American audience, but the MIT graduate
carries the air of one who knows he's really good at it. Mr. Olmert lacks
that self-awareness, which may be more effective. He lacks diplomatic
or security credentials held by prime ministers such as Ehud Barak. But
the notion that "all politics is local" takes on even greater meaning
in this part of the world, which might well look a lot different today
if Mr. Barak's personal style and political skills matched his security
background and brain power.
As the mayor of Jerusalem,
where daily governance can require myriad negotiations between and among
Israeli Jews and Palestinian Christians and Muslims, Mr. Olmert had diplomatic
responsibilities as do few other mayors.
His most immediate
test on the security and diplomatic front as acting prime minister will
again be focused on Jerusalem, as he faces his Cabinet this weekend to
support his commitment to allow Palestinians to vote in the Palestinian
Authority legislative elections Jan. 25.
This would allow
voting on the same terms as were first negotiated in 1996 for the last
Palestinian Legislative Council elections, and employed again last year
for the presidential elections, taking into account the electoral participation
this year of the militant group Hamas.
Mr. Olmert thus far
has shown a sober and steady hand, both in reassuring a shaky domestic
population and by making it clear that Palestinian voting in Jerusalem
would be resolved on terms that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could
accept. In so doing, he wisely ensured that Israel would not be providing
the excuse to those in Fatah, the Palestinian Authority's governing party,
who are agitating against elections going forward.
So my Palestinian
friend from Gaza may have the benefit of just the right amount of distance
to see clearly what is a little too close for Israelis right now. This
time, Prime Minister Sharon took the first steps by creating Kadima, the
Forward party. It was Mr. Sharon who tested the waters, opened up the
This time -- if my
Gazan friend is right about the smarts of the Israeli people -- it will
be up to Ehud Olmert to implement the plan.
Mara Rudman is
senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. During the second Clinton
administration, she served as deputy assistant to the president for national
security affairs and chief of staff for the National Security Council.
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