Israel Update for January 2006

David Dolan
David Dolan

The Israeli political world was turned upside down in a matter of seconds in early January when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke while being rushed by ambulance to Jerusalem's Hadassah hospital. His immediate complete incapacitation freshened painful Israeli memories of the similarly sudden exit ten years before of another popular, controversial premier, Yitzhak Rabin-felled by an assassin's bullet in Tel Aviv. The historic parallels do not end there. As was precisely the case with Rabin one decade ago, Sharon's debilitating stroke came after a major Israeli withdrawal, from the Gaza Strip. In both instances, this was being followed up by controversial government plans to implement further land handovers to the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria.

In late 1995, the planned Israeli pullouts were centered on six Arab towns located there, including from a portion of Judaism's second holiest site, Hebron. While negotiations stalled over the town where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried, the other withdrawals were subsequently implemented by Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres. In late 2005, Sharon was planning to evacuate another small portion of Israeli-held Hebron, along with unspecified Jewish settlements in outlying parts of Israel's biblical heartland. Now, it seems those highly contested evictions will be carried out by Sharon's formal successor, Ehud Olmert, with strong support from his apparent new deputy, Shimon Peres.

Yet another strange similarity was the fact that the Palestinians were scheduled to hold their first ever national elections when PM Rabin was shot dead. They were in the final stages of planning their long overdue second parliamentary election when PM Sharon was struck down with a severe hemorrhagic stroke. One glaring difference this time is evident: While the first election brought the expected stamp of voter approval for PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and his Fatah political movement, the second ballot could bring the fundamentalist Hamas Islamic movement to power. If Hamas actually triumphs, or even makes an expected strong showing, the political earthquake that shook the region with Sharon's sudden downfall may be relatively mild compared to the major aftershocks that would undoubtedly follow such an outcome. At the very least, a substantial Hamas showing would signal another major step forward for the Islamic fundamentalist upsurge that began with the 1979 Iranian revolution.


Born just weeks after American atom bombs ended World War II in mid-1945, sixty year old Ehud Olmert's overnight elevation to the pinnacle of Israeli power was preceded by many years of careful political calculation. Widely regarded as a shrewd, if not always totally above board, attorney and politician, Olmert began his long climb to the Prime Minister's chair in 1973 when he became the youngest person ever elected to the Knesset at just 27 years of age. One of several 'Likud party princes' whose fathers had played significant right-wing roles during Israel's initial decades, his fortunes rose further when Menachem Begin became the country's first Likud premier four years later. Even then, Olmert only weakly disguised his ultimate ambition to rule the country himself one day.

The Hebrew University graduate sat on various Knesset committees and held several cabinet positions in the 1980s and early 90s. Although he had served as an officer in an elite Golani brigade, Olmert's actual military experience was quite limited, given that he mainly acted as a reporter for the army's Bamahaneh ('In the Camp') magazine. Still, with Begin's influential backing, Olmert managed to secure a seat on the Knesset's prestigious Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee. He was helped in this venture by his academic brother, Yossi, a well-known Israeli expert on Lebanon.

The rising Likud star was appointed by Begin's successor, Yitzhak Shamir, as a minister without portfolio responsible for minority affairs in 1988. This came in the wake of the election that year which brought his main Likud 'young guard' rival, Binyamin Netanyahu, into the Knesset for the first time following a successful stint as Israel's UN ambassador in New York. In 1990 Olmert was handed a higher cabinet assignment when Shamir appointed him Health Minister-which many saw as ironic given his well publicised propensity to smoke fat cigars whenever possible (but at least he is also known as an exercise enthusiast, unlike his portly predecessor).

When Yitzhak Rabin ousted Shamir in the 1992 elections, Olmert wisely decided it was time to temporarily exit the national political stage. He realized the decade's headlines were destined to be dominated by the Labour party's warm embrace of the American-sponsored 'land for peace' process, launched by George Bush Senior at an international Mideast conference in late 1991. Instead of fighting that process with Likud cohorts from the Knesset's back benches, he would attempt to gain an influential national, and even international, voice as mayor of the Jewish people's holiest city on earth, Jerusalem. He defeated aging mayor Teddy Kolleck in the 1993 municipal election, spending the rest of the decade championing the continued unification of Jerusalem under Israel's rock solid rule.


Hoping to reenter the Knesset and assume a leading national government role, Olmert managed to soften his hard-line political image soon after the new millennium got underway. He suddenly found himself rushing to the sites of a series of heinous Palestinian terror attacks in many parts of the capital city. Unless he was away on one of his frequent foreign speaking tours-which were heavily castigated by his local opponents-Mayor Olmert faithfully arrived at the ugly scene on every sad occasion, night or day. He would later visit wounded victims in hospital, and attend the funerals of those who did not survive the atrocities-offering televised comfort to the multiplying mourners in Zion.

Ehud Olmert had actually attempted to re-ascend the national political stage soon after Netanyahu lost the 1999 national election to Labour's Ehud Barak. But he lost the internal party leadership battle to Likud founder and veteran warhorse, Ariel Sharon. This was partially due to spreading Likud suspicions that Olmert had adopted at least some of the left-wing political views known to be held by his wife, along with some of their four offspring. The mayor would bide his time, sitting comfortably in his new Jerusalem municipality building's stupendous office with its magnificent view of the nearby walled Old City, waiting to see if the much maligned former general would succeed in returning the Likud to power. If he failed to do so, as most pundits expected in pre-Al Aksa uprising days, Olmert would get another opportunity to possibly rule the Likud roost.

When Ariel Sharon was swept into power amid widespread Palestinian rioting in early 2001, Olmert realized that a new Likud era was beginning. If he wanted to eventually have a realistic shot at the Prime Minister's chair, he would have to swallow hard and ally himself with the perceived 'ultra-right-wing' Sharon.

In 2002 Olmert announced that he would not seek reelection for mayor in a municipal ballot scheduled for 2003, but would instead seek a place on the Likud's Knesset list. Facing constant rumblings from former PM Netanyahu and his allies, Sharon realized he needed a faithful Likud subordinate in his cabinet. So he proffered a strong endorsement of Olmert, despite the fact that they had suffered strained relations in the past. Even with such powerful backing, Olmert barely made it onto the list, being extremely disliked by many party kingmakers. Still, he is now well positioned to win the ultimate prize-becoming Israel's next elected Prime Minister-even if to finally achieve this longtime goal he had to abandon the very Likud party that had nurtured his rise to power.

All now know that Ariel Sharon turned out not to be the extreme ultra-nationalistic leader that Israeli and international pundits had generally anticipated. Instead, he surprised nearly everyone by becoming a centrist successor to Rabin, Peres and Barak; handing over more disputed territory to the Palestinians while removing some Jewish settlers from their cherished homes. Many analysts point to substantial evidence that it was largely Ehud Olmert, the first Likud politician to publicly call for a unilateral Gaza withdrawal, who played the pivotal role in Sharon's unexpected political transformation.