Many Americans know that the familiar Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke nearly four months ago, but they have no clear picture of the man who was his No. 2, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He is the man who now leads Sharon’s Kadima Party, and who now leads Israel.
Olmert, 60, is a lawyer by profession, but began his career in politics when elected to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in 1973 at the age of 28 – the youngest Israeli lawmaker ever elected. During the Camp David Accords, he voted against Prime Minister Begin’s giving land to Egypt.
He served as a Likud Party member on numerous Knesset committees before being elected to two terms as mayor of Jerusalem. He returned to national politics in 2003, serving in several ministerial positions and becoming Sharon’s vice premier. Olmert will be well-liked by President Bush because of his uncompromising loyalty to PM Sharon who built one of the strongest relationships of any Israeli prime minister with a U.S. president.
As acting prime minister, Olmert continued Sharon’s policy of building a security fence to protect Israeli civilians from Palestinian suicide bombers and has committed himself to a plan to extend Jerusalem’s boundary to the large suburban settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim. He also favors keeping other large settlement blocs inside Israel in any final arrangement with the Palestinians.
Olmert said he wanted to “get to Israel’s permanent borders, whereby we will completely separate from the majority of the Palestinian population and preserve a large and stable Jewish majority in Israel.” Olmert does not want Israel’s destiny placed in the hands of Jew-hating nations which gave Israel Arafat-stan and forced Israel to give up 460 towns and villages such as Bethlehem, Jericho, etc.
Olmert also claims he will build a Jewish neighborhood in the area called E1, connecting Jerusalem with its suburb to the east, Ma’aleh Adumim. The project, under planning for a decade, would include some 3,500 housing units that would link the suburban Jerusalem settlement to the capital.
This construction plan, which was frozen about six months ago following American objections, is part of what Olmert calls the “Jerusalem envelope” – Ma’aleh Adumim, the Ariel region, and Gush Etzion. These areas would be included within Israel’s borders. Olmert is also committed to retaining the Jordan Valley, seeing “the Jordan River as a security border.”
Olmert distinguishes between the current route of the security fence, which is defined only by security concerns, and where Israel’s permanent border will be established. He says that the fence will “in certain places move east, and in other places west.”
The thrust of his plan assumes that the Roadmap has for all purposes become defunct. This is due to Hamas’ failure to meet the three preconditions set by the Quartet (recognizing Israel, ending terrorism, and committing to the Palestinian Authority’s agreements with Israel). Olmert has concluded that Hamas’ rejectionism has freed Israel from the constraints of Oslo and that the United States will support Israel acting unilaterally on final-status issues.
Olmert has not specified which settlements would be involved in the plan he calls “convergence,” but would consolidate the population of the smaller settlements into the remaining large blocs. As an example, Ariel, a strategic settlement would not be touched.
The goal of Olmert’s “convergence” plan is to separate Israel and the Palestinians once and for all, and to do so unilaterally if the Hamas-led Palestinians make this necessary. He sees this plan first and foremost in terms of Israel’s self-interest: He believes “it will save lives by reducing terrorism and decrease the security burden terrorism entails.” However, displacing settlers will be a dangerous and controversial assignment.
Olmert also intends for his plan to cope with the demographic threat facing Israel. “Within about 20 years, the Jews will become a minority between the sea and the Jordan River. Israel must maintain a solid Jewish majority, or its existence as a Jewish state will be endangered”.
On terrorism, Olmert has a zero-tolerance plan. As an example, on March 14, Olmert sent IDF troops into Jericho to recapture the terrorist murderers of Cabinet Minister Rehavam Ze’evi, after Hamas declared it was about to release them.
He stands firm with Israel’s policy of not negotiating with Hamas, unless the organization recognizes Israel’s right to exist, abandons terrorism and accepts previous agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority with Israel.
On a personal level, Olmert is married and the father of four. He jogs regularly and is a diehard fan of Jerusalem’s Betar soccer team.