Ehud Olmert: The heir apparent

His reputation for greyness belies a liking for Havana cigars, designer clothes and an upper-end lifestyle
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The Independent Online

Yoram Turbowicz is hardly a household name in Israel, let alone in Britain. But Dr Turbowicz's discreet visit to 10 Downing Street yesterday was significant. A report that he had visited London to "learn about the job" was mildly derided by an Israeli official yesterday. "What are they going to do - give him a video of Yes, Minister?" he asked. The trip nevertheless says a great deal about the man who sent him: Ehud Olmert, the acting Prime Minister of Israel.

For a start, Olmert has chosen to stress more than once during the election campaign in the past three weeks that he enjoys an "excellent personal relationship" with Tony Blair. Secondly, it shows that he is determined to put his own stamp on the way the job is done from the start. And thirdly, it underlines a confidence - which his critics would put down to an undoubted touch of arrogance but which is fully justified if the polls are anywhere near right - that he will be able to form a government as Prime Minister after next Tuesday's general election.

Olmert is one of the most experienced and skilful politicians in Israel. But the fact that a man who three years ago came only 34th in his party's list of parliamentary candidates should now be on the brink of one of the world's highest profile and most important jobs is partly due to a series of events that could never have been foreseen a mere five months ago. The formation of the breakaway Kadima Party was set in motion by the unexpected Labour leadership victory of Amir Peretz. The propulsion of Olmert into the job of acting Prime Minister happened because of the massive stroke suffered by Ariel Sharon in January. And finally, Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections has created a new set of challenges for which Sharon was unable to plan.

Born in 1945, Ehud Olmert spent his infancy at the heart of the militant underground fight for a Jewish state and independence from British rule. His parents - his mother was from Ukraine and his father from Russia - were both members of Menachem Begin's right-wing Irgun. He lived for the first three years of his life at a Turkish-built fortress near Binyamina, in the north of what was still Palestine. After independence the family moved to Binyamina itself, where his father farmed and became active in Begin's Herut. A generation later it would become the key component of Likud, the dominant right party that Olmert and Ariel Sharon left five months ago to form Kadima, now favourite to win Tuesday's election.

Olmert and his brothers were locally famous as high achievers at school - in sport, about which Olmert has been a lifelong fanatic - as well as studies, driven in part by a mother with keen ambitions for them. Even then the young Ehud showed signs of the self-assurance that has become a personal trademark; Moshe Amirav, a fellow member of the movement, recalled last week to Jerusalem Report: "That's what I like about him. He is fearless and cares only about Ehud Olmert. In my book that's what makes great leaders; ambitious people determined to leave their mark on history by doing great things."

But it was in 1966 when Olmert, then 20, left his first indelible mark on the Israeli right when he broke every known taboo at a Herut convention and stood up to demand that the revered Begin resign after losing six elections in a row, prompting delegates to converge on him in fury. Since Begin swept to power 11 years later in the biggest electoral upset in Israel's history, it was not the most far-sighted of convention speeches. At the age of 28 he became the youngest member of the Knesset.

Olmert came to immediate notice in the Israeli parliament, mounting a fierce onslaught against corruption in public life. In 1975 he began a high-profile campaign to prove that Rehavam Ze'evi, a former army general and adviser to Yitzhak Rabin, had criminal connections, which ended when Ze'evi agreed to withdraw a libel suit if Olmert stopped harassing him. Begin brokered a truce, though a decade later Olmert was the only minister to abstain from a vote approving the appointment by Yitzhak Shamir of Ze'evi, whose extreme right wing party called for Palestinians to be expelled from the West Bank to other Arab countries. It is something he will certainly recall when he decides whether to bring the only somewhat less extreme anti-Arab demagogue Avigdor Lieberman into his coalition after Tuesday's election.

But the anti-corruption campaign lasted three or four years at most. Yossi Sarid, then a young left-wing Labour member who came into the Knesset at the same time as Olmert and joined his campaign, says: "We started our parliamentary careers struggling to root out corruption but then he stopped somehow. I looked around for him and he'd vanished."

Part of the reason may have been that Olmert was increasingly busy in a legal practice; having become a lawyer in 1974 he took full advantage of the fact - until 1996 - that Knesset members were allowed to work outside in the professions. From the mid-1980s Olmert faced several accusations of corruption himself - none of which was ever proved against him. Sarid, who later became leader of the left-wing Meretz party and combines a squeaky-clean reputation with a nice sense of irony, says of Olmert: "After three or four investigations he was found to be clear and clean. He has a certificate [saying so]. I don't have one."

Gradually he was becoming less of a Likud super-hawk. He had voted against Begin's 1978 peace treaty with Egypt - something which at a meeting with foreign correspondents last year he bluntly said he had been wrong about. But by 1990 he had become one of the "Likud princes" who urged Shamir to back the American call for peace negotiations with Israel's Arab neighbours and the Palestinians which led in 1991 to the Madrid conference.

After Benjamin Netanyahu won the Likud leadership in 1992, Olmert set about building a second political base by securing the mayoralty of Jerusalem. Whatever gradual inner conversion Olmert was undergoing did not stop him prodding at Netanyahu from the right. He built settlements in East Jerusalem that the PM would find difficult to justify internationally, and persuaded Netanyahu to build a tunnel from the Western Wall to the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, triggering riots that left 70 Palestinians and 15 Israeli soldiers dead. His supporters say he secured $100m for Arab areas in the city and the problems of the mayoralty were largely caused by the intifada; his critics that he ran up a $110m deficit, partly through funding ultra-Orthodox projects to boost his standing among religious parties but driving many secular Jerusalemites from the city.

What is not in doubt, however, is that he has was one of the first Likud politicians to abandon - long ago - the idea of a "Greater Israel" from Jordan to the Mediterranean; having been plucked back into national politics, he became Sharon's staunchest ally in the disengagement from Gaza last August, and he now intends more withdrawals of settlers from the West Bank. Indeed he is fighting the next election on the bold promise of drawing Israel's permanent borders within the next four years, by negotiation if possible, unilaterally if necessary, which most Israeli voters appear to think it will be.

If he were to go further than he has so far indicated he is likely to find a close ally at home. His reputation for greyness belies his liking for large Havana cigars, designer clothes and relatively upper-end lifestyle. He recently sold his handsome house in the Katomon district of Jerusalem for $2.7m to find a smaller one and he is takes his fitness seriously, jogging up to 10km a day. He is a fanatical supporter of Betar Jerusalem football club and Hapoel Jerusalem basketball team.

But least grey of all is his long and happy marriage - since their student days - to Aliza Richter, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, who gave up her social work to become a successful and multi-talented author, sculptor and painter. For Aliza Olmert has pronounced left views which have if anything more influence on her family than her husband. Of their five children - one adopted - Ariel, a French literature student at the Sorbonne, was a conscientious objector who refused to serve in the army. Olmert has sometimes wryly said he feels like a "minority of one" at home; asked recently about his wife's future role, he said she herself had indicated she would be "neither Hillary Clinton nor Sonia Peres", the latter a byword for wifely invisibility.

Two crucial questions about Olmert remain unanswered ahead of the election. Firstly, whether as a Prime Minister without Ariel Sharon's charismatic and formidable military past he has the same power to see off settler opposition to even the partial withdrawals he plans. And secondly, whether the US administration, his friends in Europe like Tony Blair or even his wife are prepared to try to persuade him to do more than use the election of Hamas as a justification for limited and purely unilateral steps and even seek the kind of agreement which the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insisted this week, however improbably, could be struck within a year.

On the first, Uri Dromi, who used to work for prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, whom he remembers getting a warm welcome from Olmert in Jerusalem at a time when he was being excoriated by Likud over Oslo, suggests there could be a precedent in Golda Meir, whose low personal popularity grew dramatically once she was in office. Dromi also thinks that while Sharon never envisaged a genuine Palestine state, Olmert could possibly prove different. "He's a lawyer and lawyers drive the opposition hard," he says. "But they also know how to leave the other guy something at the end."

Yaron Ezrahi, an eminent political scientist and long time Olmert watcher, points out that while Olmert is clearly an intelligent and talented politician capitalising on the Israelis' willingness to cede more territory, there is an inherent contradiction in "permanent borders" fixed "unilaterally" He adds: "The question is whether he is the second pilot who has simply taken over the controls for a while because the first pilot had a heart attack, or whether he is a captain with the vision and power to take the aircraft where it has to go."

A Life in Brief

BORN 30 September 1945 in Binyamina.

FAMILY Married to Aliza, an author and playwright. Five children.

EDUCATION BA and LLB in psychology, philosophy and law from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

CAREER Served in the Israeli Defence Forces. Practised law before entering politics in 1973, winning a seat in the Knesset for Likud. Served as a minister without portfolio 1988-90, and as minister of health 1990-1992. Elected mayor of Jerusalem in 1993 and held the post for 10 years. In 2003, returned to the Israeli cabinet. As deputy prime minister became a supporter of withdrawal from Gaza. Appointed finance minister in August 2005. Resigned from Likud to back the launch of Kadima.

HE SAYS "It will be a different country. It will be a country that is fun to live in." Describing his vision of Israel after an Olmert premiership.

THEY SAY "He was one of the first in our political camp who spoke of the need to reach a compromise with Palestinians." - Dan Meridor, a former Likud minister.