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Photo: Ehud Olmert presenting his government to the Knesset on May 4, 2006
Ehud Olmert presenting his government to the Knesset on May 4, 2006.

Ehud Olmert

Ehud Olmert is Prime Minister of Israel since 2006 and the leader of the Kadima party. He served as a Knesset Member from the 8th until the 14th Knessets, and again in the 16th and 17th Knessets. He served as minister with various portfolios, and as the Mayor of Jerusalem from 1993 through 2003.

Olmert was born in Nahalat Jabotinsky, a part of today’s Binyamina. His father, Mordechai Olmert, was an MK in the Third and Fourth Knessets on behalf of the Herut movement. Olmert studied in Binyamina, and for his military service served in the Golani Brigade and as a reporter for the IDF’s weekly magazine Bamahane. Following his discharge, he studied psychology, philosophy, and law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he was active in the student cell of Herut. He is a lawyer by profession.

During the Herut movement assembly in 1966, Olmert was an active opposition to Menahem Begin. A year later he left the movement to join the Free Center party established by Shmuel Tamir. In 1973 he was elected to the Eighth Knesset on behalf of the Likud, which was established by the merger of several parties including the Free Center. He was 28 years old at the time and the youngest member of that Knesset. His first years in politics were characterized by his struggle against organized crime in Israel. He had left the Free Center in 1975, together with Eliezer Shostak, and they established within the Likud the Independent Center division. One year later the division merged with the "La-am" party, which then joined the Herut movement in 1985.

In 1988, Olmert was appointed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir as Minister without Portfolio in charge of minorities’ affairs. After the Labor Party withdrew from the coalition in 1990, he was appointed as Minister of Health. In this capacity he installed the national inquiry committee to inspect the functioning and effectiveness of the health system in Israel, headed by Justice Shoshana Netanyahu. He also initiated the reform that laid the foundations for the National Health Insurance Law and for the transition of government hospitals into independent corporations.

Following the defeat of the Likud in the elections to the 13th Knesset in 1993, Olmert ran in the municipal elections for Mayor of Jerusalem. He ousted the incumbent Mayor Teddy Kollek. He maintained his position as a Knesset Member, resigning after his reelection as mayor in 1998, due to an amendment in the law forbidding a MK to hold another public office. As Mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert supported projects of Jewish development in East Jerusalem and sought expansion of the city to the West, in order to maintain its Jewish majority. He also promoted different projects of infrastructure, among them the development of the road system and the initial groundwork for a light train.

Olmert did not run in the elections to the 15th Knesset and towards the elections to the 16th Knesset, he resigned from his post as Mayor. As a loyal supporter of Ariel Sharon, he was appointed in January 2003 as Acting Prime Minister, Minister of Trade, Industry and Labor, Minister in charge of the Land Administration and the Broadcasting Authority and was also entrusted with the Directorate of the Bedouins in the Negev. In September 2003 he was also appointed Minister of Communications.

Olmert was supportive of Prime Minister Sharon’s Disengagement Plan from the Gaza Strip. In August 2005, following Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation from the Government, he was appointed as Acting Minister of Finance and as its Minister in November. That month he announced his resignation from the Likud to join Ariel Sharon’s new party, Kadima.

In January 2006, Prime Minister Sharon fell into a coma and Olmert was assigned the role of Prime Minister. Shortly thereafter he was elected as chairman of Kadima and its candidate to the post of Prime Minister. The party gained 29 seats in the elections held in March 2006, and was the largest faction in the Seventeenth Knesset. In April, following 100 days of Sharon’s hospitalization, Sharon was declared incompetent to fulfill his duties and Olmert was approved by the Government as Interim Prime Minister.

His own government was formed in May 2006 together with the Labor Party, Shas and Gil. At a later time, Yisrael Beitenu joined the coalition. Olmert had declared that during his term as Prime Minister, the final borders of the State of Israel will be settled, even through one-sided acts.

The Second Lebanon War broke out in July 2006. The outcomes of the war had brought public and political demand for the resignation of the political and military leadership and the installment of a national inquiry commission for the war. In September, the Government had succumbed to the public demand and established a governmental inquiry commission, headed by Justice Eliyahu Winograd, to investigate the events of the war. The commission’s interim report, published in April 2007, had cast most of the responsibility for the war on Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz.

In January 2008, the Winograd Commission publicized its final report. The report stated that the decision to go ahead with ground maneuvers in the last 60 hours of the war was reasonable and level-headed, and was not a product of political motives. Confidants of Olmert claimed that he was greatly relieved following this component of the report.

Throughout 2008, police investigations of Olmert were intensified. The resulting public pressure brought Olmert to announce in July 2008 that he will not be running for the position of Kadima party chairman, and when the new chairman will be elected, he will resign as prime minister. In September 2008, Tzipi Livni was elected as Kadima Chairperson, and Olmert announced his impending resignation. His resignation went into effect in April 2009 with the beginning of Binyamin Netanyahu’s term as prime minister.

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