Ehud Olmert, the bureaucrat turned statesman

Article published on March 30, 2006
Article published on March 30, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

After taking 28 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Kadima has become the leading party in Israel. That the party survived the loss of Sharon is in no small part thanks to Ehud Olmert

The centrists of Kadima are becoming the leading party in Israel: a success for Ehud Olmert, the former right-hand man of Ariel Sharon.

He has done it; Ehud Olmert cast aside his grey bureaucrat's suit and became a statesman recognised by the people. However, Kadima’s election victory will force him into a coalition with Labour party members and minor parties. Despite this, the acting Israeli Prime Minister has received an appointment from the ballot box that until then had only been granted by good will and Ariel Sharon's illness.

Olmert has won a future as head of the government, without being able to boast, unlike almost all of his predecessors, of a glorious military past. His winning weapon has been pragmatism. A pragmatism that has lead him to difficult choices in a country whose politics have mainly been inspired by ideologies and dogmas.

It all started in Jerusalem

The son of ultranationalist farmers, and in politics since the sixties, Olmert

saw the turning point of his career in 1993, when he was elected as Mayor of Jerusalem. He remained in office for a decade. It was a period where he concerned himself with the administration of the Holy City, and began a slow yet unrelenting climb to the upper levels of the administration, under the protective wing of Ariel "the bulldozer" Sharon.

"He has no particular merits" says Gerald Steinberg, lecturer at the university of Bar-Ilan, "maybe his main virtue is that very thing, there is nothing exceptional yet nothing dreadful about him. That's how he always manages to to be so dynamic." During his time in Jerusalem he began to believe more strongly in the consolidation of the Jewish State. It was this belief which led him to support the reinforcement of the Israeli presence in the eastern part of the city and to consolidate the occupation which began with the war of '67. The same belief would lead him years later to inspire the premier Sharon to carry out a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

It is a path which some have branded as incoherent but which on the contrary reflects the spirit which inspired the birth of the Kadima party: the objective is to provide Israel with definite borders, annexing part of the occupied territories and leaving the rest to the Palestinians. The plan is to proceed unilaterally, sealing the borders of Israel without entering into peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

hitkansut, or consolidation

This philosophy is no longer inspired by the old concept of disengagement but by the new spirit of hitkansut, consolidation or grouping in Hebrew. Secure borders for the Jewish state and a clearly separated future Palestinian state on the other side of the barrier. This is an epoch-making change because it breaks a taboo: it means abandoning a large part of the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria. It signifies the end of the dream.

It has been a victorious choice: the Israeli electorate, the great majority being secular, has rewarded Olmert. It is a success that reaches beyond the magnetic pull that Sharon continues to exert from his hospital bed. As

neither predator nor prey, the new centre formation has managed to convince both right and left in a public sphere which has long tired of stalemate.

Hamas' victory in Palestine has given an encouraging push in the same direction: the need to find a stable path to follow without betting on an agreement with age-old adversaries.

The pragmatic Olmert, the politician with no military pedigree, has successfully interpreted the mood of his country. From today onwards it is his duty to assure them a secure position on a new page of Middle Eastern history.