Meet the New Prime Minister

May 8, 2006
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Ehud Olmert is a sabra (native-born Israeli), born in Binyamina in 1945 prior to the establishment of the state of Israel. He was part of the Betar revisionist Zionist youth movement, which, in its early years, played important roles in the fight against the British during the Mandate and in the creation of Israel. Olmert served as an officer in the Golani Infantry Unit and Army Publications unit. Following his military service, Olmert received a BA in psychology and an LLB in philosophy and law, both from Hebrew University. He had a successful law practice before entering politics.

Involved with politics since he was elected to the Knesset in 1973, he is known as a professional politician. From 1988–1990, he served as the Minorities Minister and Minister without Portfolio responsible for Minority Affairs. He was the Health Minister from 1990–1992. Elected Mayor of Jerusalem in 1993, he took on a more visible role. He devoted himself to the initiation and advancement of major projects in the city, the development and improvement of the education system, and the development of road infrastructure. As a strong advocate of building Jewish settlements around the city, he was always considered hostile to Palestinians. Critics noted that Olmert hired numerous Likud activists to positions in the municipality during his terms as mayor.

There were numerous cases of Arab and Jewish illegal housing construction throughout Olmert’s term. He served as mayor until 2003. Olmert and Ariel Sharon began getting close in 2001, six months prior to the soon-to-be Prime Minister Sharon selecting his new cabinet. In 2003, Olmert ran against Ariel Sharon for the Likud Party leadership. Olmert lost, but Sharon welcomed him into the government. In return for his support for the Disengagement Plan, Sharon appointed Olmert as Deputy Prime Minister in February 2003.

He gained a reputation for floating controversial ideas, allowing Sharon to gauge reactions and strategize. He served as Communications Minister from 2003 through 2004. In August 2005, Olmert was appointed Finance Minister when Binyamin Netanyahu stepped down in protest of the Gaza Disengagement Plan. He served as Acting Prime Minister after Sharon suffered a major stroke in January 2006.

His views on Zionism have modified over the years. Olmert originally opposed withdrawing from land captured in the Six-Day War and voted against the Camp David Peace Accords in 1978, yet was a vocal supporter of the Gaza pullout. After his appointment as Deputy Prime Minister, Olmert said, “I voted against Menachem Begin. I told him it was a historic mistake, [regarding the peace treaty with Egypt], how dangerous it would be…He was right and I was wrong. Thank God we pulled out of the Sinai.”

In December 2003, Olmert suggested that Israel pull out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He reasoned that by keeping the territories, Israel would have a majority of Arabs within its borders and would cease to be a national home for the Jews. Without a peace partner, unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories becomes the only viable option. Olmert thinks demographics in the region do not favor Israelis.

In an interview with Ha’aretz newspaper, he opined that Palestinians might give up the fight against the “occupation” and turn to a one-man-one-vote policy, which would mean Israelis would be outnumbered in elections. “That is, of course, a much cleaner struggle, a much more popular struggle—and ultimately a much more powerful one,” Olmert said. “For us, it would mean the end of the Jewish state.”

Olmert has a wife and five children: three daughters and two sons, one living in New York and another in Paris. His wife, Aliza, is an artist and a writer of novels and theater plays. Olmert has for decades been a devoted fan of the Beitar Jerusalem football club.

by Richard E. Bristol, Ph.D

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