Olmert's humble act likely a winner

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am

In his three months filling in for the stricken Ariel Sharon, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has chosen to work out of his old office and not the prime minister's office.

Similarly, at cabinet meetings he has left empty the chair occupied by Mr Sharon before being felled by his stroke, even though it was clear that Mr Sharon would not be coming back.

These niceties stem not only from deference to Mr Sharon, who is still officially prime minister, but from a wish not to be seen as a usurper.

The almost certain winner in Tuesday's general election, Mr Olmert had never before been considered by insiders a likely prime minister. The 60-year-old was too sharp-tongued with his political peers and with the press, too well connected with wealthy businessmen, too enamoured of trips abroad and expensive cigars to make him a popular figure.

Although he barely made it into the Knesset three years ago, he was chosen by Mr Sharon as a minister and his No2.

Mr Sharon picked him because of Mr Olmert's political savvy and because he, like Mr Sharon, had begun to embrace the notion of returning most captured land to the Palestinians so that they could establish their own state. He was at Mr Sharon's right hand when the latter quit Likud last October and founded the centrist Kadima Party.

Since the sitting leader entered hospital, Mr Olmert has sought to project a restrained, presidential, image. He had begun his political career on the far right. As a young Knesset member, he opposed Israel's withdrawal from Sinai in return for a peace treaty with Egypt.

He established his own law practice in which he became wealthy, amid periodic suggestions of shady dealings. But he was never charged. He took a break from national politics in 1993 to become mayor of Jerusalem, a position he held for 10 years before returning to the Knesset.

Mr Olmert's major ideological opponent, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 57, took over the Likud leadership after Mr Sharon abandoned it. Educated mostly in the US, Mr Netanyahu's articulateness had made him a star when he served as ambassador to the UN.

In 1996, at 47, he became Israel's youngest prime minister. His self-confidence appeared close enough to pomposity to make him a favourite media target. When he called early elections in 1999, he was defeated by Labour's Ehud Barak.

Mr Sharon brought him into his government in 2002, first as foreign minister, then as finance minister in which position he is credited even by his political enemies with highly effective reforms leading to Israel's economic upsurge.

He has, however, seen support for Likud plunge since Mr Sharon's departure and faces a challenge if the party does not regain lost ground on Tuesday.

The third party leader is Labour's Amir Peretz, the first member of the Sephardi community - Jews who immigrated from Muslim countries - to run for prime minister. His family came to Israel from Morocco when he was four and settled in the southern town of Sderot.

Unlike Mr Netanyahu, Mr Peretz, 54, agrees with Mr Olmert that Israel should withdraw from most of the West Bank, unilaterally if need be. His ability to form a stable centre-left government that could oversee such a move depends on Tuesday's result.