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."

The pronouncement 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 the center.

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 politics.

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 space.

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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