JERUSALEM • ANALYSIS
When Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert attended the funeral of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's wife, Lily, in March 2000, he made a snide remark about Sharon, who'd defeated him for the Likud leadership a few months earlier.
At the time, Olmert was bitter about the campaign. Nor had their friendship and political alliance developed yet, even though they'd known each other for decades and served together in the Knesset.
"Lily was a wonderful woman, who was married to a very strange man," then-Jerusalem mayor Olmert told The Jerusalem Post after the funeral, as he was walking away from the isolated hilltop on Sharon's Negev ranch, where Sharon had shed tears as he buried his wife.
That Olmert would make such a tactless comment against Sharon seems unthinkable now, after four years serving as Sharon's closest political ally.
Two years after Lily's death, Olmert made a strategic decision to form a political bond with the prime minister that's paid off beyond his wildest expectations. Sharon vaulted him from the 33rd slot on the Likud list to the Ministry of Industry and Trade, and added the title of vice premier to make up for not appointing him finance minister.
Olmert used the title with pride. In fact, he fought successfully to keep it when Shimon Peres joined the government – refusing to give it up, as if it were a prized possession. He never explained why it was so important to him to be second in command to a 77-year-old prime minister, perhaps because it was so obvious.
Now that Olmert has achieved his lifetime goal, at age 60 and under tragic circumstances, he has less than three months to persuade the public to let him remain in the top spot.
The last time Israel mourned a prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated, and the public was in a state of shock. The rapid deterioration of Sharon's health should not have been so surprising, but it will take time for Israelis to recover from the death of a man who seems almost irreplaceable.
Peres lost the 1996 election because – though he was seen as the bearer of Rabin's Oslo legacy – he did not inherit Rabin's reputation as a respected security chief. Likewise, Olmert can claim to be the originator of Sharon's disengagement strategy, but there's a big difference between an acclaimed war hero like Sharon and Olmert, who served in the Israel Defense Force as a correspondent for the military journal Bamahaneh.
No Real Base
Another disadvantage for Olmert is that he has no real base of political support. He was elected to the Knesset three years ago by 773 Likud central committee members, and his political career might be over right now if he hadn't received unexpected support for his Knesset bid from far-right activist Moshe Feiglin.
To become acting prime minister, all Olmert needed was the support of one man: Sharon. To hold on to the job, he will need the votes of nearly a million people.
A recent poll taken by Sharon's strategists found that Olmert was respected by the public but not liked – the opposite of Labor chairman Amir Peretz, who's liked but not respected.
Olmert will have to sell himself hard. He will have to erase his image as a political zigzagger. Since his election in 1973 at 28 as the youngest M.K. ever elected until that point, he has meandered back and forth in his political leanings.
As health minister in March 1991, Olmert caused a storm when he told a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington that Israel was willing to negotiate with Syria on the status of the Golan Heights. Then-premier Yitzhak Shamir and Sharon slammed him, assuring the public that they considered the Golan an inseparable part of Israel.
After years of being considered on the left side of the Likud, Olmert shifted rightward when he was elected Jerusalem mayor in 1993. During his decade in city hall, he gained a hard-line reputation for pushing for the opening of the controversial Western Wall tunnel in 1996, supporting Jewish settlement in Arab neighborhoods, and pursuing a policy of demolishing unauthorized construction by Arab residents.
After losing the Likud-leadership race to Sharon in 1999, Olmert took a break. He returned, at Sharon's invitation, in 2003, and gradually guided the man leftward.
Olmert's dramatic announcement in December 2003 that he would back a unilateral withdrawal from most of the territories was seen as a trial balloon for the disengagement plan that Sharon revealed 10 days later at the Herzliya Conference.
The political "big bang" that split the Likud was the brainchild of Olmert and former Laborite Haim Ramon. Olmert had intended to use Kadima as a launching pad for the race to succeed Sharon in 2010; now, the cards have been reshuffled.
No one believes Olmert can win as much support as Sharon had in the polls. He doesn't have to win by a landslide, but he does have to win.