Olmert, Ehud

Olmert, Ehud
▪ 2007
 Ehud Olmert became Israel's 12th prime minister on April 14, 2006, 100 days after his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, suffered a massive brain hemorrhage that left him in a coma. Olmert had taken over as acting prime minister on January 4, the day Sharon fell ill, and led Kadima, the centrist party Sharon established by breaking away from the right-wing Likud, to victory in the March 28 general election. During the election campaign, Olmert promised to set up permanent borders between Israel and the Palestinians by 2010 and to continue Sharon's policies of disengagement from occupied Palestinian areas. In May Olmert's coalition government won formal approval from the Knesset (parliament).

      Olmert was born on Sept. 30, 1945, in an old Turkish fortress near the village of Binyamina, north of Tel Aviv. His parents were members of the militant Irgun Jewish underground, which fought for independence from the then British mandate over Palestine. In the mid-1950s and early '60s, his father, Mordechai, served as a Knesset member for the right-wing Herut party, a political outgrowth of the Irgun and a precursor of the Likud.

      Olmert first gained attention when, as a 21-year-old student activist, he stood up in a Herut party convention and demanded that Menachem Begin, the all-powerful Irgun and Herut leader and later prime minister, resign after having lost his sixth consecutive national election. Seven years later, after leaving Herut for the breakaway Free Center, Olmert became Israel's youngest Knesset member, elected on a unified Likud slate headed by Begin. In the Knesset the young Olmert established a reputation for fighting corruption in sport and organized crime. Ironically, from the mid-1980s his name was associated with a number of corruption scandals, but in the only case that led to an indictment, he was acquitted. Olmert's rise in the political ranks gained impetus when Yitzhak Shamir replaced Begin as prime minister in 1983. Part of an inner circle of young Likud “princes” close to the new leader, Olmert, at 42, was appointed (1988) minister responsible for Israeli Arab affairs; in 1990 he became minister of health.

      When Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Likud leader in 1993, Olmert left national politics to run for mayor of Jerusalem. In a major upset he defeated six-time incumbent Teddy Kollek; he was reelected in 1998 for a second term. Recalled to national politics by Sharon in 2003 and named minister of trade and industry and deputy prime minister, Olmert quickly became the politician closest to Sharon and one of the chief architects of his disengagement policy. The success of Olmert's premiership would probably be judged by the degree to which he succeeded in advancing the separation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Leslie D. Susser

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▪ prime minister of Israel
born Sept. 30, 1945, near Binyamina, Palestine [now in Israel]
 Israeli politician who served as mayor of Jerusalem (1993–2003) and as prime minister of Israel (from 2006).

      Olmert's parents were members of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, a militant Jewish group that fought for the establishment of Israel. In the mid-1950s and early '60s, Olmert's father, Mordechai, served in Israel's Knesset (parliament) as a member of the Herut Party, a political outgrowth of the Irgun and a precursor of the Likud.

      Olmert attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he received both bachelor's (1968) and law (1973) degrees. In 1973 he became Israel's youngest Knesset member, elected as a part of the right-wing Likud led by Menachem Begin (Begin, Menachem). In the Knesset Olmert established a reputation for fighting organized crime and corruption in sports. He rose within Likud, particularly after 1983, when Yitzḥak Shamir (Shamir, Yitzḥak) replaced Begin as party leader and prime minister. In 1988 Olmert was appointed minister without portfolio and was responsible for relations with Israeli Arabs; in 1990 he became minister of health.

      In 1993 Olmert left national politics and was elected mayor of Jerusalem, defeating six-time incumbent Teddy Kollek; he was reelected in 1998. In 2003 Olmert was recalled to national politics by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (Sharon, Ariel), who appointed him vice prime minister and minister of trade and industry. Olmert became one of Sharon's closest political advisers and was a chief architect of Sharon's policy of withdrawing from some of the Israeli-held territory in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and forcibly removing Jewish settlers there.

      In January 2006, after Sharon was debilitated by a massive stroke, Olmert became acting prime minister. In March 2006 he led to victory Kadima—the centrist party Sharon had established in 2005 by breaking away from the Likud—and was confirmed as prime minister the following month after forming a coalition government. Olmert promised to continue Sharon's policies of disengagement from Israeli-occupied areas and of setting permanent borders between Israel and the Palestinians by 2010. However, Ḥamās's unexpected victory in the Palestinian elections in 2006 and its takeover of the Gaza Strip the following year brought a new uncertainty to Israeli-Palestinian relations.

      Following the abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah in July 2006, Olmert initiated a massive military operation into southern Lebanon in an effort to secure the soldiers' release and deliver a decisive blow to the Shīʿite militant group based there. The inconclusive 34-day war—in which Israel failed to free its soldiers or eradicate Hezbollah and in which more than 1,000 Lebanese and more than 150 Israelis were killed—drew both domestic and international reproach. Although the final report issued in January 2008 by the Winograd Commission (a body of inquiry convened to investigate the conduct of the July 2006 campaign) was highly critical of the upper echelons of Israeli political and military leadership, its appraisal of Olmert in particular was not as harsh as some had anticipated.

      Olmert's weakened public standing was further damaged by allegations of corruption, the most high-profile of which alleged that he had accepted large sums of money from an American businessman before his tenure as prime minister. In the course of the subsequent inquiry, Olmert argued that the contributions were used to legally finance his election campaign, but he pledged to step down if charged. Calls for his resignation mounted as the inquiry progressed, and in July 2008 Olmert announced that he would step down after party elections scheduled for the fall of that year. In the September election, one of Olmert's rivals, Tzipi Livni (Livni, Tzipi), emerged as the leader of Kadima; as promised, Olmert formally resigned, although he remained leader of an interim government until a new prime minister could be selected.

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Universalium. 2010.

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