Prime minister remains defiant to the end

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The day after Ehud Olmert effectively ended his political career, he announced plans to commemorate Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whose ideology Olmert has done much to bury.

It was an odd closing of the circle, since the prime minister’s career at first typefied Jabotinsky’s grand vision of Israel spanning the “river to the sea.”

Olmert won election to the Knesset at 28, in 1973, when the nascent Likud Party earned enough seats to form a viable opposition. Four years later Likud won the government outright.

During his first years in government, Olmert was a strident advocate of Jewish settlements. As a member of the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he helped push through budgeting for new settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

The first sign of change came after the 1988 elections, when Olmert became the minister in charge of minority affairs. In interviews immediately after the elections, he said his first priority would be to crush Islamist movements.

Within months, Olmert was delivering that rarest of political pronouncements: an apology. The Islamists, he said, were principally interested in bettering the lives of their constituents and he was ready to work with them.

It was around then that the other strand of Olmert’s career also emerged, as he found himself the subject of criminal allegations.

As Likud campaign manager in the 1988 elections, he was accused of authorizing the wiretapping of Labor Party headquarters. He managed to emerge unscathed.

Olmert began entertaining party leadership ambitions, sowing intraparty enmity with Benjamin Netanyahu.

In his successful run for Jerusalem mayor in 1993, Olmert mocked legendary mayor Teddy Kollek’s age. Three years later he told reporters that between Netanyahu and Shimon Peres, Netanyahu was the “more Jewish” candidate for prime minister — a loaded reference to longstanding slanders that Peres’ mother was an Arab.

Olmert could be charming, especially when it came to Americans. He formed friendships with Jewish organizational leaders and congressional members.

For a political survivor, Olmert at times betrayed a surprisingly thin skin, asking newspapers to remove reporters he did not favor. When a local Jerusalem newspaper in 1994 uncovered his ties to a group that advocated in the 1970s for the aliyah of American Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky, Olmert strode over to the newspaper’s editor at a party and tossed a glass of water in her face.

His two terms as Jerusalem mayor were undistinguished. His most ambitious project, an expensive light-rail system, remains mired in planning five years after Olmert’s reign.

During his mayoral term, he cultivated many of the relationships with U.S. Jewish leaders that would culminate in this year’s multiple police investigations. Wealthy Jewish businessmen were attracted by Olmert’s pledges to preserve Jerusalem’s Jewish character.

Such behavior did little to dispel accusations by his rivals that he was using the mayor’s office to set up another run for prime minister. In 2003, Olmert rejoined the Knesset, again running the Likud’s successful campaign. His loyalty to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his political skills won him the post of deputy prime minister, even though he remained one of the party’s less popular figures.

Still, Olmert remained well liked among many American Jews, where he spearheaded the campaign to explain Sharon’s late-life conversion to land-for-peace policies.

At first it seemed Olmert was leaning where the political winds blew, but his interlocutors soon realized his conversion was sincere. His wife and children, all doves, had an effect on him. More substantially, the shock of the violence of the second intifada in the early 2000s convinced him that it was time to tease apart two states, Israel and Palestine.

“It was a genuine conversion,” said M.J. Rosenberg, the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, the dovish group that formed a close relationship with Olmert after his change of heart. “Olmert’s unique value was that he approached peace as a pragmatist — none of this starry-eyed Peres stuff. It was, ‘We Israelis want to have normal lives. We want to have nice houses and take our families to football games and make money. To do this we have to lay this conflict behind us.’ There was no mush.”

Many Palestinians, too, appreciated Olmert as a straight-shooting partner who treated them as equals. Olmert lacked the imperiousness of Ehud Barak or the paternalism of Peres.

It was Olmert’s practical vision that finally won him widespread popularity, and the premiership in January 2006, after Sharon went into a coma from a stroke. Olmert won general elections two months later.

Within months, however, the honeymoon unraveled.

Hezbollah launched an attack that July, and the Olmert government’s belligerent response seemed hapless. Israel’s air-based war did little to prevent substantial Israeli casualties and earned international opprobrium for the destruction it caused in Lebanon. Hezbollah also suffered heavy losses, but rallied as a political force in Lebanon and is now a veto-wielding presence in the country’s Cabinet.

At the same time, Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, sold hard by Olmert, also was coming apart. Hamas terrorists had driven moderates from Gaza and were behind daily barrages of rockets into southern Israel.

The need to isolate Hezbollah, Hamas and especially their backer, Iran, drove Olmert to push harder for peace. It led to the launch last year of peace talks with Palestinians at Annapolis, Md., and to this year’s renewed talks with Syria under Turkish auspices.

But in his resignation speech last week, Olmert sounded defiant about the corruption charges — a legacy perhaps of his childhood weaning on the works of Jabotinsky, who famously counseled followers to “never surrender.”

“I have been forced to battle ceaseless attacks,” Olmert said. “Everyone knows that things have been blown out of proportion.”

Olmert timeline

Sept. 30, 1945 Born to Bella and Mordechai Olmert in Binyamina, near Haifa.

1963-1971 Begins military service in the Golani Brigade, but hand and feet injuries that predate his service force him out of the combat unit. He completes his service as a reporter for the IDF magazine, Bamahane.

1965 As student representative of the Herut Party, the predecessor to Likud, Olmert makes a name for himself by demanding the resignation of party chief Menachem Begin.

December 1973 Elected to the Knesset as a Likud Party member.

December 1988 Appointed minister

without portfolio in charge of minority affairs by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

April 1989 Criticized for receiving a $50,000 loan from a fictitious company owned by the head of the Bank of North America, Yehoshua Halperin. Tried and acquitted.

June 1990 Appointed health minister

under Shamir.

November 1993 Elected mayor of Jerusalem, defeating longtime incumbent Teddy Kollek.

September 1996 Indicted with other Likud party members for illicit fundraising from corporate donors and for knowingly signing a false statement. Acquitted of the charges.

February 2003 Appointed deputy prime minister and minister of industry, trade and labor by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

December 2003 Throws his support behind Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza.

November 2005 Leaves Likud and follows Sharon to his newly formed centrist party, Kadima.

January 2006 Becomes acting prime minister after Sharon suffers a debilitating stroke.

March 2006 Wins general election and becomes prime minister.

July 2006 Wages a 34-day war against Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist group.

September 2006 Questioned after purchasing a property in Jerusalem for far less than market value.

January 2007 Questioned by investigators about whether, as finance minister, he used his influence to favor a friend in the sale of a large portion of the newly privatized Bank Leumi.

April 2007 Found responsible for the failures of the Lebanon war in the interim report by the Winograd Commission.

January 2008 Leadership during Lebanon War determined by the Winograd Commission’s final report to be conducted in good faith, despite serious failings.

May 2008 Investigated for illegal fundraising, bribery and the double billing of trips.

July 2008 Announces he will resign as prime minister after Kadima primary in September, allowing the party’s new leader to form a new government. — jta

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.