Ehud Olmert was suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight when he became acting prime minister on January 5, 2006, after Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke and fell into a deep coma. Until then he had served as Israel’s deputy prime minister, with little standing in his own country and barely known outside. One of the most right-wing “Likudniks” and more conservative than Sharon himself, Olmert had a history of supporting the dream of a greater “Eretz” Israel and strongly backing the settler movement.
Olmert’s family emigrated from China to Israel in the late 1930s. He was born in 1945 and grew up in a small community -- Nahalat Jabotinski -- named after a famous militant nationalist leader, where less than 30 families settled in the 1940s. These families were separated from and ostracized by the majority of the Jewish community at the time because of their underground militancy, and what was considered ultra-nationalism. Olmert’s father became a member of parliament, representing the right wing party Herut.
Olmert grew up with three brothers, who were all aggressive and competitive. And it wasn’t long before young Ehud was off and running in the same direction. After attending law school, he ran for the Knesset, then became a minister without portfolio and a minister of health. Following that, in 1993, he ran and was elected mayor of Jerusalem, which launched him firmly into the political spotlight. He remained Jerusalem’s mayor for 10 years before joining Sharon’s cabinet in 2003, and he devoted his mayoral term to improvements in the city’s infrastructure, especially in the area of transportation.
Despite his longstanding support of the settlements, Olmert was surprisingly one of the first to advocate withdrawal from Gaza. At first, the idea was controversial, and advocates for Israeli settlers accused him of caving in to terrorism. Later, however, Olmert’s idea was endorsed by Sharon and developed into the country’s disengagement plan. Olmert has recently announced a plan for unilaterally withdrawing from 70 percent of the West Bank, effectively drawing the borders of Israel and a new Palestinian state -- yet another step in his shift from the hard right to a more centrist political position.
In November 2005, Olmert joined Ariel Sharon in leaving Likud and founding Israel’s new centrist party, Kadima. He will be the party’s candidate in the March elections and is strongly favored to win.
Olmert is a lawyer by trade and has degrees in psychology, philosophy and law from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His wife, Aliza, is a successful artist and author. They have four children.