Likud 'prince' who dreamed of a two-state solution

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Ehud Olmert, a corporate lawyer with a passion for football, foreign travel and Havana cigars, is the kind of man who goes into politics to become prime minister.

At 60 he seemed to have missed out. He had lost touch with Likud's blue-collar core. But Ariel Sharon's devastating second stroke has handed him the chance of a lifetime. Friends say he won't give it up easily.

Born into a right-wing pioneering Zionist family in the wine-growing country of Binyamina, south of Haifa, he was one of the Likud "princes", who followed their fathers into parliament.

But from his student days at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, he chafed at the ideological rigidity of the party's historic leader, Menachem Begin. Long before Mr Sharon created Kadima, Mr Olmert dreamed of a centre-right party, which could win power by appealing to a broad, pragmatic constituency. His politics were about doing, not dogma.

"Up to now," the young upstart told a conference of what was then the Herut party, "Begin has led the movement as an opposition, but he has not succeeded in leading it to rule. He must accept the consequences and resign." In 1966 that was close to heresy. He defected to a small breakaway centrist party, but returned to the fold when Mr Sharon welded four parties into the Likud in 1973.

Mr Olmert was one of the first Likud legislators to meet secretly in the late 1980s with Faisal Husseini and other Palestinian nationalists in Jerusalem. He was troubled by the vision of an Arab majority, demanding democratic rights, between the Jordan and the sea. But as the disputed city's mayor in the 1990s, he worked to expand Jewish settlement and cement Israel's hold on the Arab side of town.

He was the first Likud leader in the new century to preach unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank. Without specifying borders, he said in December 2003, a week before Mr Sharon unveiled his disengagement plan, that they would leave Israel with 80 per cent Jews and 20 per cent Arabs. That was very close to the existing ratio within the pre-1967 line.

Mr Olmert brings to his new challenge years of experience in government as minister of health, industry and, most recently finance.With his thinning hair and gaunt features, he is a sharp dresser and a polished television performer, in both Hebrew and English, an agile debater who thinks well on his feet.

His wife Aliza, an artist and writer, and his four adult children, have never made any secret of their left-wing sympathies. Now he has to show them he has the strength to deliver the two-state solution they want, however flawed it might be.