Ehud Olmert: Hostage to fortune

Israel's prime minister is caught in a complex drama, one far bigger than the freeing of a soldier
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If everything had gone to plan last week, Ehud Olmert, would yesterday evening have lit one of his favoured Cuban cigars and, as a knowledgeable follower of Premiership football - particularly Manchester United - sat down for a relaxed viewing of the England vs Portugal game. Today, he would be approving the final touches to what was to have been tomorrow's slick relaunch of Kadima, the political party that he leads and has come to personify, even though it was founded by his predecessor Ariel Sharon last year.

There were good reasons for the planned party relaunch. Olmert has admitted that even though Kadima's showing in the March election was enough to make it the single biggest party, it was a disappointment.

And incumbency has not helped improve the party's standing either. There have been growing doubts about his ability to carry through the project on which he fought that election: unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. The latest polls suggest the party would win 24 seats instead of the 29 it secured in March.

There were even better reasons to postpone the rebranding, as the Israeli Prime Minister has now done. It would hardly have been forgiven by a country transfixed by the fate of Gilad Shalit, the 19-year-old Army corporal seized by Palestinian militants exactly a week ago. How Olmert handles this crisis, and what looks like the imminent military conflict, in Gaza, is easily his biggest test to date.

Commentator after commentator has pointed out last week that, as an essentially civilian politician - he spent most of his military service as a reporter with the Army newspaper - who lacks the distinguished military background of a Sharon, Barak, Rabin, or even a Netanyahu, Olmert has much to prove to the electorate about his military toughness.

And the operation originally presented as a single-minded effort to secure the release of Cpl Shalit now appears to be developing other objectives, the compatibility of which are not always self-evident. What is less easily understood is that Olmert's political background also complicates an already seriously tricky military and political crisis.

He made his early political career on the hard right of a right-wing party, Likud, whose founding doctrine saw the West Bank and Gaza as part of "Greater Israel". As a young Knesset member he even voted against Likud prime minister Menachem Begin's peace treaty with Egypt (a decision he has since publicly repented).

When he built himself a new power base in the 1990s as mayor of Jerusalem after being eclipsed in national politics by Benjamin Netanyahu, he appeared at times to goad his rival - by then prime minister - from the right. He even persuaded Netanyahu to build a controversial tunnel from the Western Wall to the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, sparking riots that left 70 Palestinians and 15 Israeli soldiers dead.

Yet Olmert has come in recent years to be seen, in the words of another one-time "Likud Prince", Dan Meridor, as "one of the first in our political camp who spoke of the need to reach a compromise with Palestinians".

Olmert was an outrider for disengaging from Gaza last August, wanting Sharon to withdraw more Jewish settlers from the West Bank than he did. His wife, Aliza, a social worker turned talented artist, and at least two of his five children, have pronounced left-wing views. So when the crunch comes will he take the extra chance for peace or revert to his antecedents?

Olmert was born in 1945. His mother, fiercely ambitious for the success of her children, was from Ukraine and his father from Russia. Both were members of Begin's Irgun, the ultra-hawks of the militant underground fighting for an independent Jewish state routinely described as a "terrorist" organisation by the British mandate's officialdom and by the media of the time.

After shining at school in sport and studies he took one degree in psychology and philosophy and another in law at the Hebrew University. It was here that he met his wife. He was elected to the Knesset at only 28, eight years after precociously creating a minor sensation at a convention of Herut (the forerunner of Likud) by launching an uninhibited if - in view of Likud's stunning victory in 1977, short-sighted - attack on Begin for continually losing elections.

Though he has a definite touch of arrogance, he can charm interlocutors when he chooses, as he has done with international leaders. Even Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, talked about the "chemistry" between the two men after meeting him in Jordan this month. "They say there are only two kinds of international leaders, those that like him and those who haven't met him," says one diplomat with only the barest trace of cynicism.

But in domestic politics, his political closeness to Sharon may contribute to the sense of having something to prove. Only 34th on the Knesset list of Likud candidates in 2003, Olmert would probably not have become prime minister had Sharon not made him his deputy and then had his massive stroke.

Yet quite what the Israeli public now wants him to prove isn't, perhaps, as purely bellicose as many think. What started as an operation to secure the release of Cpl Shalit has already taken on a second stated objective, that of ending, by military means, the firing of Qassam rockets on Sderot - less than three miles from the Gaza border and, as it happens, the home town of Olmert's Labour defence minister, Amir Peretz.

In the eyes of some increasingly nervous international observers there is a third - and perhaps now overriding - objective of bringing down the elected Hamas government.

The problem with the second objective is that, while it may result in heavy Palestinian civilian casualties - and diplomats say Jewish organisations abroad are already being prepared for an international backlash - Israel has not succeeded before in stopping the Qassams by purely military means. Nor is it clear that it will make it easier to free Cpl Shalit, undoubtedly something the Israeli public want.

A poll in Friday's Yedhiot Ahronot shows 53 per cent prefer negotiations to the military operation, which is backed by only 43 per cent. In the event that Cpl Shalit would be executed unless Palestinian prisoners were released, 58 per cent favoured such releases, while 35 per cent opposed them.

If the polls are right, Friday's editorial in the left-leaning Haaretz appears at least partly in tune with public opinion. It called on Mr Olmert "to let the threatening actions already taken suffice", free the Hamas leaders arrested on Thursday in the West Bank and get into negotiations on freeing Cpl Shalit. "It should be remembered that we are talking about bringing a soldier home," the editorial concluded, "not changing the face of the Middle East."

Mr Olmert doubtless feels the need to prove his toughness as a military leader; but Israel is also willing him to get Cpl Shalit out alive. It will not be easy to do both.