Olmert, Ehud (1945–)
Ehud Olmert is an Israeli politician who became the twelfth prime minister of Israel in 2006. He was a longtime member of Israel's center-right Likud Party before joining the newly formed Kadima Party led by then-prime minister ARIEL SHARON. Olmert took over the leadership of Kadima and became acting prime minister after Sharon suffered an incapacitating stroke in January 2006. Following Kadima's electoral victory in March 2006, he became prime minister.
Olmert was born in 1945 in Nahalat Jabotinsky, part of Binyamina, in mandatory Palestine. His parents were among the founders of Nahalat Jabotinsky, named after Ze'ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, the leader of the Revisionist Zionist movement that espoused a militant and uncompromising approach in the struggle between Jews and Arabs over possession of Palestine. The third of four sons, Olmert grew up in a staunchly ideological family, whose right-wing nationalist views were widely considered anathema by the majority of Israelis and were thus a cause for social ostracism. His father, Mordechai Olmert, who had emigrated from Harbin, China, in the late 1930s, was a Member of Knesset (MK) from 1955 to 1961 for the Herut Party. This was a right-wing party at the margins of Israeli politics, which at the time was dominated by the center-left Mapai Party under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's prime minister for most of the period from 1948 to 1963.
Like most children from Revisionist Zionist homes, as a child Olmert joined the Betar Youth Organization, the highly nationalistic and militaristic youth wing of the Revisionist Zionist movement. For his compulsory military service, Olmert served as an officer in the Golani combat brigade. During his military service he was injured and temporarily released from the army. He later completed his military service in 1971 after working as the military correspondent for the Israel Defense Force's (IDF) magazine Bamahane. Between 1965 and 1968, he studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, graduating with a B.A. degree in psychology and philosophy.
Name: Ehud Olmert
Birth: 1945, Nahalat Jabotinsky, mandatory Palestine
Family: Wife, Aliza; four children, Michal, Dana, Shaul, Ariel
Education: B.A., Hebrew University, 1968; LL.B., Hebrew University, 1973
- 1973: Elected to the Knesset
- 1988–1990: Minister without portfolio, responsible for minority affairs
- 1990–1992: Minister of health
- 1993–2003: Mayor, Jerusalem
- 2003–2005: Minister of communications
- 2003–2006: Deputy prime minister, minister of industry, trade and labor
- 2005–2006: Minister of finance
- 2006–present: Prime minister, minister of social welfare
Olmert entered right-wing politics at an early age. As a student, he was a member of Herut's student organization. Already actively involved in politics at the age of twenty-one, at the Herut movement's convention in June 1966 Olmert publicly demanded the resignation of Herut Party leader Menachem Begin over the party's losses in six consecutive general elections. In 1968 Olmert became a parliamentary aide in the Free Center Party headed by Shmuel Tamir, a position he held until 1973. From 1970 to 1973 he also studied for a law degree at the Hebrew University. He started working in a private law firm in Jerusalem in 1975 and became a successful lawyer.
In 1973 at the age of only twenty-eight Olmert was elected to the Knesset as part of the Free Center Party, which had then become a faction within the newly formed Likud bloc. At the time, Olmert was the youngest-ever MK. In his early years in the Knesset, Olmert made a name for himself by campaigning against corruption in sports and organized crime. He was reelected in 1977, 1981, and 1984 as part of the Likud list.
In 1985 he officially joined the Likud Party itself and served as a Likud MK until 1998. From 1981 to 1988, he was a member of several Knesset committees: foreign affairs and security, finance, and education. From 1988 to 1990, he served as a minister without portfolio for minority issues in the national unity government led by Yitzhak Shamir. He then became minister of health in Shamir's Likud-led government between 1990 and 1992, during which time he initiated a broad reform of the health-care system.
Mayor of Jerusalem
In 1993 Olmert successfully ran for mayor of Jerusalem against incumbent Teddy Kollek, becoming the first member of Likud to hold the position. Olmert rose to public prominence as Jerusalem's mayor, a position he held for ten years, by winning reelection in 1998 (after his reelection he resigned from the Knesset in accordance with a new law forbidding MKs to hold other public offices). During his mayoral term, he focused on making improvements to the city's education system and its transportation infrastructure.
As mayor, Olmert supported politically controversial housing construction projects in the predominantly Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem annexed by Israel in 1981. He helped establish the Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa (formerly Jabal Abu Ghneim), and promoted the creation of a Jewish neighborhood in Ra's al-Amud. He was also involved in the 1996 decision to open an ancient tunnel to the Western Wall, close to the Muslim holy places on the Haram al-Sharif. This prompted large-scale Palestinian demonstrations and fighting between Israeli and Palestinian Authority forces, leaving seventy-nine Palestinians and fourteen Israeli soldiers dead.
During his mayoral tenure, Olmert had to contend with accusations of corruption and cronyism. In 1996 he stood trial on charges of breaking the Party Funding Law as Likud Party treasurer during the 1988 elections. He was eventually cleared of all charges. Through much of his political career, allegations of corruption have been made against Olmert, and numerous investigations have been launched, but he has never been convicted of any crimes.
In September 1999, after BINYAMIN NETANYAHU stepped down as Likud leader after his electoral defeat to Labor leader Ehud Barak, Olmert ran for chair of the Likud Party. Ariel Sharon won the vote by a large margin, with Olmert the runner-up, having received 29 percent of the vote.
Olmert resigned as mayor of Jerusalem in January 2003 and returned to the Knesset after overseeing Likud's successful election campaign. He was appointed deputy prime minister in the Sharon government; and minister of industry, trade, and labor; as well as minister responsible for the Israel Lands Authority, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Bedouin Administration in the Negev. He also served as minister of communications in 2003 and 2004.
Although formerly a rival of Sharon within the Likud, Olmert became Sharon's closest ally during his second term in office (2003–2006) and an influential member of his cabinet. He was an early advocate of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, an idea that was subsequently embraced by Sharon and became the "disengagement" plan of 2004. This controversial plan involved a complete unilateral civilian and military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, with the dismantling of twenty-one settlements and evacuation of approximately nine thousand Jewish settlers, as well as the dismantling of four small settlements in the northern West Bank and the evacuation of their residents. The plan was strongly opposed by many within Likud and led to a split within the party between its supporters and its opponents. When then-finance minister Netanyahu, a leading opponent, resigned in protest in August 2005, Olmert was appointed acting finance minister. Three months later, the Knesset voted to confirm Olmert in that office.
Following Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in September 2005, Sharon announced in November 2005 that he was leaving the Likud and forming a new centrist party, Kadima. Olmert immediately quit the Likud and together with several other former Likud ministers joined Sharon in Kadima. On 4 January 2006 Sharon suffered a massive stroke and was hospitalized. Olmert became acting prime minister, and a short time later was appointed head of Kadima.
In the run-up to the March 2006 general election, Olmert advocated a more extensive unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank by 2010, a plan he called "realignment," later renamed the "convergence" plan. Olmert explained that the primary objective of the plan was to preserve Israel's character as a Jewish and democratic state with a large Jewish majority. He indicated that he wanted Israel to retain three large settlement blocs in the West Bank—Ariel, Ma'ale Adumim, and Gush Etzion—where the majority of the settlers lived, while abandoning the smaller and more isolated settlements. The withdrawal would involve the evacuation of somewhere between 20,000 and 80,000 settlers, and leaving between 65 and 90 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. He also expressed a willingness to withdraw from outlying Palestinian suburbs of Jerusalem.
In the March 2006 election Kadima won a plurality of the vote and received twenty-nine Knesset seats. Although it received fewer seats than initially expected, it became the largest party in the Knesset and was able to form the new coalition government. In April 2006, one hundred days after being hospitalized, Sharon was declared "permanently incapacitated" and thus unable to continue serving as prime minister. As a result, Olmert became prime minister, although he had already become prime minister-elect. In May 2006, following the conclusion of the coalition negotiations, Olmert's new Kadima-led coalition government was approved by the Knesset, and he was sworn in as prime minister. He also took the job of minister for social welfare.
Olmert presented his new government to the Knesset on 4 May 2006. In his speech to the Knesset, Olmert reiterated his campaign pledge to determine the state's final borders and evacuate more West Bank settlements, with or without the agreement of the Palestinian Authority. Although he announced his intention to try to reach an accord with the Palestinian Authority, it was widely expected that such an agreement would not be reached and that instead the Olmert government would determine Israel's borders by itself and carry out a major unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.
The convergence plan that was the centerpiece of the Olmert government's agenda, however, soon fell victim to two developments on Israel's northern and southern borders. In the south, on 25 June 2006, armed Palestinian militants from Gaza entered a military base inside Israel via a makeshift tunnel, killed two Israeli soldiers, and abducted a third, Corporal Gilad Shalit. In response, Israel launched a large-scale military operation in Gaza, "Operation Summer Rains," with the goal of stopping Qassam rocket fire from Gaza against its civilian population and securing the release of Corporal Shalit.
Soon afterward, on 12 July 2006, while Israel was engaged in heavy fighting in Gaza, militants from the Lebanese Shi'ite organization Hizbullah crossed the Lebanese-Israeli border, captured two Israeli soldiers, and killed three. Hizbullah also fired Katyusha rockets and mortars at Israeli military positions and border villages. Five more Israeli soldiers were later killed on the Lebanese side of the border while trying to rescue the captured soldiers.
The Lebanon War
Prime Minister Olmert characterized the seizure of the soldiers as an act of war by the Lebanese state. The Israeli cabinet quickly met and authorized a "severe and harsh" retaliation against Lebanon. The IDF then launched heavy artillery and air strikes against targets throughout Lebanon, including Lebanese civilian infrastructure, and imposed an air and naval blockade on Lebanon. Hizbullah responded by launching rockets into northern Israel.
The ensuing conflict between Israel and Hizbullah, sometimes referred to in Israel as the "Second Lebanon War," lasted thirty-four days. When it concluded on 13 August 2006, with a United Nations (UN)-brokered cease-fire—embodied in Security Council Resolution 1701—many people in Israel were bitterly disappointed by the fact that the IDF had not decisively defeated Hizbullah. At best, the war was considered to have been a draw, not the military victory that Israelis were accustomed to.
The Olmert government's conduct of the war was severely criticized in Israel. The most common criticisms were of poor planning, intelligence failures, an overreliance on air power, and deployment of ground troops too late in the conflict. Faced with such criticisms, Olmert admitted to mistakes in the war and appointed a commission of inquiry to examine them, although he resisted appointing a state commission of inquiry with the power to dismiss government ministers, as many of his critics demanded. In the wake of the war, Olmert's domestic popularity plummeted. Politically weakened, Olmert shelved his West Bank convergence plan and concentrated on ensuring his government's survival.
On 30 April 2007, the government-appointed commission of inquiry chaired by retired judge Eliyahu Wino-grad released its interim report on the 2006 Lebanon War. Focusing on the Olmert government's decision-making process regarding the decision to go to war and during the first five days of the war, the report was harshly critical of Olmert, accusing him of being too hasty in deciding to go to war, proceeding without a detailed military plan, having unrealistic goals, and failing to consult with experts, especially with people outside the IDF. Although the commission did not call for Olmert to resign, Olmert came under intense pressure to do so. Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in central Tel Aviv demanding his resignation; even his own foreign minister, tzipi livni, called for him to resign. Olmert, however, refused, and continued to cling to power, despite his massive unpopularity.
INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS
Olmert was born into the political tradition known as Revisionist Zionism, founded by Ze'ev Jabotinsky. As the son of Mordechai Olmert, a member of the Irgun, a right-wing Jewish underground militia active in mandatory Palestine and later a Knesset member for the Revisionist Herut Party, Olmert grew up among Herut loyalists. He was a child of the "fighting family," as Irgun veterans called themselves, and like other children from prominent Revisionist families became a member of the Likud Party's dynastic group (Likud's "princes," as they were popularly known). Other members of this group include BINYAMIN NETANYAHU (son of the scholar Ben-Zion Netanyahu), Binyamin Begin (son of Menachem Begin), and Tzipi Livni (daughter of Irgun operative and Herut Party Knesset Member Eitan Livni).
Raised under the influence of Revisionist ideology, Olmert was strongly influenced by its central goal of establishing a Jewish state with a Jewish majority on the whole Land of Israel (Eretz Yisra'el)—which it was claimed included all of present-day Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan (the claim to the latter territory was dropped by the late 1960s). This state was to be obtained by force if necessary and secured, in Jabotinsky's famous phrase, by an "Iron Wall."
In accordance with this ideological background, in his early years in politics Olmert's views were firmly on the right of the political spectrum in Israel. In particular, he opposed withdrawing from land captured by Israel in the 1967 War. Olmert therefore voted against the Camp David Accords with Egypt in 1978 and vocally opposed Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai in 1982.
In later years, however, Olmert's political views changed, and after joining Sharon's government in 2003 he publicly admitted that his earlier stand against the withdrawal from Sinai was wrong. He became a prominent advocate of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as well as from parts of the West Bank. Olmert appeared to have undergone a political conversion from being an ideological right-wing hawk to a pragmatic right-centrist.
It is hard to say when this political shift occurred or what really caused it. Already in the 1980s as a young Likud Knesset member, Olmert began expressing views that differed from the official views of his party. He suggested, for instance, that Israel unilaterally grant autonomy to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. He also opposed granting pardons to convicted members of Jewish terror organizations, and expressed reservations at extending Israeli law over "Judea and Samaria" (the West Bank).
Nevertheless, during his ten years as mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert was still regarded as one of the most right-wing "Likudniks." He continued to support the goal of a "Greater Israel" and opposed withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza. He strongly backed the Jewish settler movement and, as mayor, promoted Jewish settlement efforts in Palestinian Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
It was not until Olmert returned to the Knesset in 2003 and became Sharon's deputy and close ally that his new political orientation became evident. Olmert was among the first Likud politicians to call for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. It was only after Olmert publicly floated the idea that Sharon embraced it, and many credit Olmert with persuading Sharon to support it. After Sharon announced his disengagement plan Olmert then became one of its foremost supporters. Olmert's early advocacy of disengagement from Gaza and his central role in the development of Sharon's plan stands out as his most significant contribution to date.
The war between Israel and Hizbullah lasted from 12 July to 13 August 2006. More than one thousand people were killed, mostly Lebanese civilians (39 Israeli civilians were killed); and about 900,000 Lebanese and 300,000 Israelis were displaced. Lebanon's infrastructure was also severely damaged. At the conclusion of the war, both sides claimed victory, giving rise to a debate over who won the war. Some claimed that Hizbullah had won because it survived Israel's ferocious air and land assault. Others argued that Israel won because it inflicted heavy losses on Hizbullah, weakening the organization.
Although Israel failed to retrieve its two captured soldiers and destroy Hizbullah's military capability, UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the conflict, was a diplomatic accomplishment for Israel as it led to the dispatch of an enlarged and more robust UN peacekeeping force to southern Lebanon and the deployment of Lebanese army forces to the area, thereby reducing Hizbullah's future freedom of action in its heartland. Hizbullah, however, achieved a propaganda victory by withstanding the might of the IDF.
THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE
Olmert was little known outside Israel before his swift and dramatic rise to the premiership as a result of Sharon's sudden incapacitation. He was widely considered an unlikely prime minister, lacking his predecessor's charisma and national standing. Moreover, without an impressive military background or much experience in national security, few had previously considered Olmert to be a serious contender for the job.
Thrust into the international spotlight almost overnight, Olmert was perceived to be a pragmatic, centrist leader and a canny politician. Early international hopes that he would be the leader to establish Israel's final borders and carry out a major pullback from the West Bank have, however, been dashed by the demise of his much-publicized convergence plan.
While it is too soon to tell what Olmert's legacy will ultimately be, he will be remembered for his important role in bringing about Israel's disengagement from Gaza and subsequently calling for a more extensive withdrawal from the West Bank. Whether or not Olmert eventually succeeds in carrying out his declared goal of determining the borders of Israel and giving up large parts of the West Bank, his own political evolution from right-wing ideologue to pragmatic centrist helped move part of the political right in Israel away from an unyielding commitment to maintaining Israeli control over the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 War.
Olmert's legacy will undoubtedly be tarnished by the perceived failure of Israel's war with Hizbullah in July 2006. Despite Olmert's claim that Israel achieved significant gains, public opinion in Israel and elsewhere has generally regarded the war as a defeat for Israel. Whatever else he does as prime minister, therefore, Olmert will always be remembered—and blamed—for this defeat.
Halevi, Yossi Klein. "Unwanted Man." New Republic, 16 October 2006.
Rubin, Barry. "Israel's New Strategy." Foreign Affairs 85 (July/August 2006): 111-125.
Sandler, Shmuel. "Centrism in Israeli Politics and the Olmert Government." BESA Perspectives on Current Affairs 17 (June 2006). Available from http://www.biu.ac.il/Besa/perspectives17.html.
Waxman, Dov. "Between Victory and Defeat: Israel after the War with Hizballah." Washington Quarterly 30, no. 1 (Winter 2006–2007): 27-43.
EVERY HILL IN SAMARIA IS PART OF OUR HISTORIC HOMELAND
We firmly stand by the historic right of the people of Israel to the entire Land of Israel. Every hill in Samaria [northern West Bank] and every valley in Judea [southern West Bank] is part of our historic homeland. We do not forget this, not even for one moment. However, the choice between the desire to allow every Jew to live anywhere in the Land of Israel [and] the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish country—obligates relinquishing parts of the Land of Israel. This is not a relinquishing of the Zionist idea, rather the essential realization of the Zionist goal—ensuring the existence of a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel. In order to ensure the existence of a Jewish national homeland, we will not be able to continue ruling over the territories in which the majority of the Palestinian population lives. We must create a clear boundary as soon as possible, one which will reflect the demographic reality on the ground.
EHUD OLMERT, AT THE SIXTH HERZLIYA CONFERENCE. ISRAEL NEWS AGENCY. "ISRAEL OLMERT HERZLIYA CONFERENCE SPEECH: DISENGAGEMENT CONTINUES." 24 JANUARY 2006. AVAILABLE FROM HTTP://WWW.ISRAELNEWSAGENCY.COM.