Olmert guided Sharon’s Kadima Party to a plurality of seats in its first legislative election held March 28, 2006. Although the party failed to garner a clear majority, he forged a clear coalition that aimed to scale back West Bank settlements and to form a final Israeli border by 2010.
The 60 year old has held a variety of posts in the government including finance minister and minister of industry, trade and labor, as well as the minister responsible for the Israel Lands Administration.
His transition from supporting actor to leader is the culmination of a lengthy career as a lawmaker, mayor of Jerusalem, cabinet member and finally Sharon’s vice premier and close confidant.
Once an outspoken hawk who preached a greater Israel, Olmert underwent a startling conversion two years ago and decided Israel had to pull out of most of the areas captured in the 1967’s Six Day War. But it was a conversion mirrored by many in the Israeli public and Sharon as well.
Born into a family of Russian origins near Binyamina in 1945, Olmert’s youth came during the final years of British rule in Palestine.
Despite his hard-line history, his family’s political ties caused Olmert some problems during his campaign for Kadima. His wife, Aliza, is a well-known artist and member of the left-leaning Peace Now Movement. Their daughter Dana is involved in monitoring abuses of Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints in the occupied territories. One son, now living in New York, served in the army and reportedly has left-wing views. A second son avoided military service, unusual in the security-minded Israel, and lives in Paris.
Opponents were quick to seize on these facts, one anti-Olmert site declaring: “When Olmert surrenders to [the Islamist movement] Hamas, we and our children will pay the price while Olmert’s children are eating croissants in Paris, opposing the Israeli army and supporting the Palestinians.”
Anti-Olmert forces also made much of the vice premier’s decision to back Sharon’s plan for a Gaza evacuation, saying it amounted to his abandoning an earlier idea of a Greater Israel that included the Gaza and the West Bank settlements.
But Olmert argued that demographically, if Israel did not make such a move, the state would soon house a majority of Arab and Palestinian residents.
“It will lead to the loss of Israel as a Jewish state,” he admitted to the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.
Although he plans to continue to minimize Israel’s involvement in the occupied territories, Olmert has said he expects to go ahead with his so-called “E-1 development plan,” which calls for building some 3,500 homes in the land between East Jerusalem and the large Maale Adumim settlement. Maale Adumim, about 2 miles from East Jerusalem, has more than 30,000 residents. This platform has been widely accepted by a majority of Israelis.
When it comes to relations with the Palestinians, Olmert has said he will wait to see if the Hamas government meets the conditions for resuming Palestinian-Israeli contacts. These conditions include: recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, disarmament of all the Palestinian resistance factions, and adherence to all previous Palestinian Liberation Organization-Israeli agreements, including the 1993 Oslo Accords and the 2003 road map to peace.
The Oslo Accords call for withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank and affirm the Palestinian right to self-government within those areas through the creation of the Palestinian Authority, while the 2003 road map was initially laid out by President Bush and called for an independent Palestinian state existing alongside an independent Israeli state.
Olmert has said Israel will determine its own eastern border by 2010 if the Palestinians do not return to the negotiating table. His line likely will run along a controversial West Bank barrier, which would include annexing around 10 per cent of the current occupied Palestinian authority. Under the Olmert plans, a future Israel would also include Maale Adumim, Ariel and Gush Etzion settlements as well as Jerusalem’s Old City and the “adjacent neighborhoods” in occupied East Jerusalem.
The pundits give him credit for being careful not to move into Sharon’s shoes too quickly while maintaining continuity of policies. He also is given credit for reacting carefully to the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections, sounding tough at home but ensuring international aid kept flowing to avoid a humanitarian crisis.
In the 2006 elections of the 17th Knesset (Israeli Parliament), Olmert’s party scored the largest bloc of seats, 29 — although it was a weaker-than-expected showing and required Kadima to assemble a coalition government.
In his victory speech, Olmert promised to make Israel a just, strong, peaceful and prosperous state, respecting the rights of the minorities, cherishing education, culture and science and above all striving to achieve lasting and definite peace with the Palestinians.
Olmert indirectly told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, “We are prepared to compromise, give up parts of our beloved land of Israel, remove, painfully, Jews who live there, to allow you the conditions to achieve your hopes and to live in a state in peace and quiet.”
He stated, however, that if Palestinians refuse to recognize the state of Israel, then Israel “will take her own fate in her hands,” implying unilateral action.