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Acting Israeli Premier Is a Longtime Ally of Sharon

Finance chief Ehud Olmert, along with the prime minister, started out as a hard-liner but became a top backer of the Gaza withdrawal.

January 05, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Ehud Olmert, who took over as acting prime minister Wednesday after Ariel Sharon was hospitalized, has been the Israeli leader's steadfast ally as the pair shifted over time from ideological hard-liners to advocates for withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.

The 60-year-old vice premier, a lawyer who served as Jerusalem's mayor for a decade, was among the core of Likud Party members to join Sharon in November when the prime minister abandoned the conservative party to found a centrist movement called Kadima, Hebrew for "forward."

Olmert is generally considered Sharon's No. 2 in Kadima, though no one in the fledgling party enjoys the prime minister's national popularity, according to polls.

But Olmert, who is also finance minister, has been a reliable barometer of Sharon's thinking. He publicly floated the idea of a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and a portion of the northern West Bank before the prime minister did and later became one of the move's most important supporters.

Like Sharon, he has said that Israel must make painful concessions if it is to resolve its bloody conflict with the Palestinians.

Both men were long steadfast in refusing to yield Israel's hold on territories captured in the 1967 Middle East War. They have since championed a unilateral approach under which Israel would pull back to lines designed to ensure its long-term viability as a Jewish state.

Like other hard-liners, Olmert opposed the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt that called for Israel to relinquish the Sinai peninsula.

"I voted against Menachem Begin," Olmert said last year, referring to the late prime minister and Likud leader who signed the accord. "I told him it was a historic mistake, how dangerous it would be, and so on and so on. Now I am sorry he is not alive for me to be able to publicly recognize his wisdom and my mistake. He was right and I was wrong. Thank God we pulled out of Sinai."

Olmert aired the notion of unilateral pullbacks in 2003, weeks before Sharon laid out his vision for "disengagement" from certain areas claimed by Palestinians for a future state.

Olmert has since claimed credit for coming up with the idea, which ultimately led to Israel's pullout during summer from all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four others in the West Bank.

Olmert said withdrawing from areas populated by Palestinians was the only way to assure that Israel maintained a Jewish majority and survived as a Jewish nation.

"Of course, I would prefer a negotiated agreement," he told the daily newspaper Haaretz in November 2003, a month before Sharon unveiled the pullout plan. "But I personally doubt that such an agreement can be reached within the timeframe available to us."

The pullout enraged Sharon's right-wing admirers in the settler movement and reshaped Israeli politics by paving the way for his departure from the Likud. Olmert had previously hinted at additional evacuations, but Sharon denied having plans for more unilateral pullouts by Israel.

Olmert was widely considered a likely candidate to succeed Sharon long before the prime minister's recent health problems. He served as minister of industry and trade for two years before taking over the finance post in August when Benjamin Netanyahu resigned to protest the impending Gaza pullout.

Netanyahu, who is leading the Likud in national elections scheduled in March, is a longtime Olmert rival.

As mayor of Jerusalem from 1993 to 2003, Olmert was known for his hawkish stances on issues pertaining to Palestinians.

An activist in right-wing politics since childhood, Olmert was first elected to the Knesset, or parliament, in 1973, at 28. He has served as health minister and minister without portfolio, and headed the Likud's campaign effort when Sharon was reelected in 2003.

He is married and has four children.

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