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Ehud Olmert
Flickr - Government Press Office (GPO) - P.M. Olmert with Shahar Peer and Udi Gal (cropped) (cropped).jpg
Olmert in 2007
12th Prime Minister of Israel
In office
4 January 2006 – 31 March 2009
Acting: 4 January 2006 – 14 April 2006
President Moshe Katsav
Shimon Peres
Deputy Tzipi Livni
Preceded by Ariel Sharon
Succeeded by Benjamin Netanyahu
Mayor of Jerusalem
In office
2 November 1993 – 16 February 2003
Preceded by Teddy Kollek
Succeeded by Uri Lupolianski
Personal details
Born (1945-09-30) 30 September 1945 (age 78)
Binyamina, Mandatory Palestine
Political party Likud (1973–2006)
Kadima (2006–2015)
Spouse(s) Aliza Olmert
Children 4 (including Shaul and Dana)
Alma mater Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Ehud Olmert (/ˈlmərt, -mɛərt/; Hebrew: אֶהוּד אוֹלְמֶרְט, IPA: Script error: No such module "IPA".; born 30 September 1945) is an Israeli politician and lawyer. He served as the 12th Prime Minister of Israel from 2006 to 2009 and before that as a cabinet minister from 1988 to 1992 and from 2003 to 2006. Between his first and second stints as a cabinet member, he served as mayor of Jerusalem from 1993 to 2003. After serving as PM, he was sentenced to serve a prison term over convictions for accepting bribes and for obstruction of justice during his terms as mayor of Jerusalem and as trade minister.

Early life

Olmert was born near Binyamina in the British Mandate of Palestine. According to Olmert, his parents, Bella (Wagman) and Mordechai Olmert, escaped "persecution in Ukraine and Russia, and found sanctuary in Harbin, China. They emigrated to Israel to fulfill their dream of building a Jewish and democratic state living in peace in the land of our ancestors." His father later became a member of the Knesset for Herut. Olmert's childhood included membership in the Beitar Youth Organization and dealing with the fact that his parents were often blacklisted and alienated due to their affiliation with the Jewish militia group the Irgun. They were also part of Herut, the opposition to the long-ruling Mapai party. However, by the 1970s, this was proving less detrimental to one's career than during the 1950s.

Education and military service

Olmert graduated from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with degrees in psychology, philosophy and law. He opened a successful law partnership in Jerusalem. Olmert served with the Israel Defense Forces in the Golani Brigade. While in service he was injured and temporarily released. He underwent many treatments, and later completed his military duties as a journalist for the IDF magazine BaMahane. During the Yom Kippur War, he joined the headquarters of Ariel Sharon as a military correspondent. Already a member of the Knesset, he decided to go through an officer's course in 1980 at the age of 35.

Member of Knesset and Minister

In 1966, during the Gahal party convention (a predecessor to today's Likud), party leader Menachem Begin was challenged by the young Olmert, who called for his resignation. Begin announced that he would retire from party leadership, but soon reversed his decision when the crowd emotionally pleaded with him to stay. Olmert was first elected to the Knesset in 1973 at the age of 28, and was re-elected seven consecutive times. Between 1981 and 1989, he served as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and served on the Finance, Education and Defense Budget Committees. He served as minister without portfolio, responsible for minority affairs between 1988 and 1990, and as minister of health from 1990 until 1992. Following Likud's defeat in the 1992 election, instead of remaining a Knesset member in the opposition, he successfully ran for mayor of Jerusalem in November 1993.

Mayor of Jerusalem

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Bronze plate situated in the Wire Opera House in Curitiba, Brazil, commemorating Olmert's visit as mayor of Jerusalem

Between 1993 and 2003, Olmert served two terms as mayor of Jerusalem, the first member of Likud or its precursors to hold the position. During his term in office, he devoted himself to the initiation and advancement of major projects in the city, the development and improvement of the education system, and the development of road infrastructure. He also spearheaded the development of the light rail system in Jerusalem, and the investment of millions of shekels in the development of mass transportation options for the city.

While mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert was an invited speaker at an international conflict resolution conference held in Derry, Northern Ireland. In his address, he spoke of how "Political leaders can help change the psychological climate which affects the quality of relationships among people." His speech concluded with reflections on the importance of political process in overcoming differences: "How are fears born? They are born because of differences in tradition and history; they are born because of differences in emotional, political and national circumstances. Because of such differences, people fear they cannot live together. If we are to overcome such fear, a credible and healthy political process must be carefully and painfully developed. A political process that does not aim to change the other or to overcome differences, but that allows each side to live peacefully in spite of their differences."

Olmert ran unsuccessfully in the September 1999 Likud leadership election.

Deputy leader of Israel

Olmert was elected as a member of the sixteenth Knesset in January 2003. He served as the head of the election campaign for Likud in the elections, and subsequently was the chief negotiator of the coalition agreement. Following the elections he was appointed as Designated Acting Prime Minister and Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor. From 2003 to 2004, he also served as Minister of Communications.

On 7 August 2005, Olmert was appointed acting finance minister, replacing Benjamin Netanyahu, who had resigned in protest against the planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Olmert, who had originally opposed withdrawing from land captured in the Six-Day War, and who had voted against the Camp David Peace Accords in 1978, was a vocal supporter of the Gaza pullout. After his appointment, Olmert said:

I voted against Menachem Begin, I told him it was a historic mistake, how dangerous it would be, and so on and so on. Now I am sorry he is not alive for me to be able to publicly recognize his wisdom and my mistake. He was right and I was wrong. Thank God we pulled out of the Sinai.

When Sharon announced he was leaving Likud to form a new party, Kadima, Olmert was one of the first to join him.

Acting prime minister

On 4 January 2006, as the designated Acting Prime Minister, Olmert became Acting Prime Minister as a result of the serious stroke suffered by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This occurred after consultations took place between Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon and Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, who declared Sharon "temporarily incapable to carry out the duties of his office", while only officially in office. Then, Olmert and the cabinet reaffirmed in an announcement that the 28 March elections would be held as scheduled. During the days following the stroke, Olmert met with Shimon Peres and other Sharon supporters to try to convince them to stay with Kadima, rather than return to Likud or, in Peres' case, Labor. On 16 January 2006, Olmert was elected chairman of Kadima, and Kadima's candidate for prime minister in the upcoming election. In his first major policy address on 24 January 2006 after becoming caretaker Prime Minister, Olmert stated that he backed the creation of a Palestinian state, and that Israel would have to relinquish parts of the West Bank to maintain its Jewish majority. At the same time, he said, "We firmly stand by the historic right of the people of Israel to the entire Land of Israel." In a number of interviews, he also introduced his Realignment plan, which would see Israel unilaterally withdraw from most of the West Bank and redraw its borders to incorporate major settlement blocs into Israel. The plan was shelved following the 2006 Lebanon War.

Following the March 2006 election, Kadima won 29 seats, making it the largest party. On 6 April, Olmert was officially asked by President Moshe Katsav to form a government. Olmert had an initial period of 28 days to form a governing coalition, with a possible two-week extension. On 11 April, the Israeli Cabinet deemed that Sharon was incapacitated. The 100-day replacement deadline was extended due to the Jewish festival of Passover, and a provision was made that, should Sharon's condition improve between 11 and 14 April, the declaration would not take effect. Therefore, the official declaration took effect on 14 April, formally ending Sharon's term as prime minister and making Olmert the country's new Interim Prime Minister in office (he would not become the official prime minister until he formed a government).

Prime Minister

Ehud Olmert and George Bush 2
Ehud Olmert and George W. Bush

On 4 May 2006, Olmert presented his new government to the Knesset. Olmert became prime minister and minister for welfare. Control over the Welfare Ministry was expected to be given to United Torah Judaism if it would join the government. The post was later given to Labor's Isaac Herzog. Olmert took over as acting prime minister of Israel after Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke.

Addresses U.S. Congress

On 24 May 2006, Olmert was invited to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. He stated that his government would proceed with the disengagement plan if it could not come to agreement with the Palestinians. Olmert was the third Israeli prime minister to have been invited to speak at a joint session of Congress.

2006 Lebanon War

Loses popularity, controversial statements

Following the 2006 Lebanon War, Olmert's popularity ratings fell and, on 15 September 2006, former chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon publicly stated that Olmert should resign. In May 2007, Olmert's approval rating fell to 3%, and he became the subject of a Google Bomb for the Hebrew for "miserable failure".

Rice Olmert Abbas 2007
Ehud Olmert meets with Condoleezza Rice and Mahmoud Abbas.

On 9 December 2006, Olmert stated that he could not rule out the possibility of a military attack against Iran, and called for the international community to step up action against that country. He called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated threats to destroy Israel "absolutely criminal", and said that he expected "more dramatic steps to be taken". In an interview with German TV network Sat.1 on 11 December 2006, Olmert included Israel in a list of nuclear powers, saying: "Iran, openly, explicitly and publicly, threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel and Russia?" He immediately attempted to backtrack, insisting that Israel's doggedly held position of nuclear weapons ambiguity had not changed. He nonetheless came under harsh criticism from both ends of the Israeli political spectrum due to the perceived threat to Israel's policy of ambiguity regarding its nuclear status. On 2 May 2007, the Winograd Commission accused Olmert of failing to properly manage the 2006 Lebanese War, which prompted a mass rally of over 100,000 people calling for his resignation.

Annapolis peace talks

Olmert welcomed the Arab League's 2007 re-endorsement of the Arab Peace Initiative. Olmert wrote in The Guardian newspaper that Israel was ready to make "painful concessions" to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

"I take the offer of full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world seriously; and I am ready to discuss the Arab peace initiative in an open and sincere manner. Working with our Jordanian and Egyptian partners, and hopefully other Arab states, we must pursue a comprehensive peace with energy and vision.... But the talks must be a discussion, not an ultimatum."

On 4 November 2007, he declared Israel's intention to negotiate with the Palestinians about all issues, stating, "Annapolis will be the jumping-off point for continued serious and in-depth negotiations, which will not avoid any issue or ignore any division that has clouded our relations with the Palestinian people for many years." On 29 November 2007, he warned of the end of Israel in case a two-state solution is not eventually found for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. "If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished", Olmert said on the last day of the Annapolis Conference. "The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us", Olmert said, "because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents".

During the talks, Olmert agreed that Israel would share Jerusalem as the joint capital of Israel and a Palestinian state and hand over its holy sites to a multinational committee, land swaps that would allow Israel to keep its major settlement blocs in the West Bank, the construction of a tunnel connecting the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and a demilitarized Palestinian state with an American-led international security force stationed on the Palestinian–Jordanian border. Both sides disagreed over how much land would be exchanged in the swaps, with Olmert demanding at least 6.3–6.8% of the West Bank and Abbas insisting a swap would not exceed 1.9%. In his memoirs, Olmert wrote that he agreed Israel would generously compensate the remaining refugees. Olmert later stated that U.S. President George W. Bush offered to accept another 100,000 refugees as American citizens if a peace agreement was signed. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in her memoirs that the Palestinians demanded they be allowed to negotiate additional "returns" to Israel following the peace deal, insisting that the right of return was a matter of individual choice that would ultimately have to apply to every refugee. In his memoirs, Olmert claimed that he and Abbas were very close to an agreement, but Abbas' hesitation, Olmert's legal troubles, and the Gaza War caused the talks to end. President Bush wrote in his memoirs that the talks broke down when Olmert announced that he would resign from office, and Abbas then broke off the talks and refused to finalize an agreement on the grounds that he did not want to sign a peace deal with a Prime Minister on his way out of office.

During at least two meetings, Olmert made a secret promise to Abbas: Once a prisoner exchange deal for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was finalized with Hamas, Israel would bolster Abbas' government by releasing Fatah prisoners. After a prisoner exchange deal was agreed upon in 2011 under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Olmert's successor, Palestinian officials demanded that Netanyahu live up to Olmert's promise and release Fatah prisoners.

Operation Orchard

On 6 September 2007, Israel launched Operation Orchard, an airstrike against a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria, allegedly being built with North Korean and Iranian assistance. The strike was preceded by years of covert operations by Israeli special forces and the Mossad. Details of the strike were censored in Israel, and the attack was not confirmed to have taken place until 2 October. Following the attack, Olmert's approval rating rose to 35%.

President Bush wrote in his memoirs that Olmert had first asked him to bomb the facility, but ordered the attack after Bush refused and told him that he would prefer diplomatic action and sanctions. Following the strike, Bush claimed to have suggested to Olmert to hide the strike for a while and then make it public as a way to isolate the Syrian government, but Olmert asked for total secrecy, wanting to avoid anything that could force Syria to retaliate. However, Israeli columnist Caroline Glick wrote that Israel had bowed to US demands in concealing the airstrike.

Negotiations with Syria

In May 2008, Israel opened Turkish-brokered indirect peace talks with Syria. Olmert stated that the resumption of peace talks with Syria was a national obligation that must be tried. However, Syria broke off the talks several months later in response to the Gaza War.

Gaza rocket attacks increase

Rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian terrorists from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Israel occurred frequently throughout the spring and summer of 2008, until a ceasefire was agreed between Hamas and Israel in June. Rocket attacks increased sharply in November after an Israeli raid on an Hamas-built smuggling tunnel. The ceasefire expired in December 2008 and negotiations stalled between the two parties to renew the ceasefire. On 24 December, the Negev was hit by more than 60 mortar shells and Katyusha and Qassam rockets, and the IDF was given a green light to operate. Hamas claimed to have fired a total of 87 rockets and mortar rounds that day at Israel, code-naming the firing "Operation Oil Stain".

IDF bombs, invades Gaza

On 25 December 2008, Olmert delivered a "last minute" warning to Gaza in direct appeal to Gaza's people via the Arabic language satellite channel al-Arabiya, to pressure their leaders to stop the rocket barrages. "I am telling them now, it may be the last minute, I'm telling them stop it. We are stronger", he said. The attacks did not stop and Israel launched its military operation, codenamed Operation Cast Lead, on the morning of 27 December, when more than 50 fighter jets and attack helicopters began to bomb strategic targets. Air and naval strikes continued for days, when on 3 January 2009 the IDF began a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. The fighting lasted 22 days until a ceasefire came into effect. Israel subsequently withdrew from Gaza.

On 1 February 2009, Olmert stated:

We've said that if there is rocket fire against the south of the country, there will be a severe and disproportionate Israeli response to the fire on the citizens of Israel and its security forces.

Controversial UN vote

The UN Security Council passed a resolution on 8 January 2009 calling for an immediate ceasefire to the hostilities in the Gaza Strip. It passed 14–0–1, with one abstention from the United States. Olmert told reporters, "[U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] was left shamed. A resolution that she prepared and arranged, and in the end she did not vote in favor. In the night between Thursday and Friday, when the Secretary of State wanted to lead the vote on a ceasefire at the Security Council, we did not want her to vote in favor. I said 'get me President Bush on the phone'. They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn't care. 'I need to talk to him now'. He got off the podium and spoke to me. I told him the United States could not vote in favor. It cannot vote in favor of such a resolution. He immediately called the Secretary of State and told her not to vote in favor." When asked about the comments, a White House spokesman said that Olmert's version of events was "inaccurate".

The war finally ended on 18 January 2009. A day before, Israeli officials announced a unilateral ceasefire, without an agreement with Hamas. In a press conference, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert declared the ceasefire effective that night, at 00:00 GMT on 18 January.

Stepping down

On 30 July 2008, Olmert announced that he would not contest the Kadima party leadership election in September and would resign from office once his party elects a new leader. In his resignation speech, he addressed the cases of corruption of which he is being accused, saying he is "proud to be a citizen of a country in which a Prime Minister can be investigated like any other citizen", but also stated he "was forced to defend [himself] from ceaseless attacks by the self-appointed soldiers of justice, who sought to oust [him] from [his] position". The move has been interpreted as signaling the end of Olmert's political career.

Many politicians across the political spectrum praised Olmert's decision to resign. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said "the personal decision was not simple, but it was a correct one. Kadima must continue to act in a way that will preserve its unity and ability to lead." Defense minister and Labor party leader Ehud Barak called Olmert's announcement "a proper and responsible decision made at the right time". Opposition leaders called for the resignation to be followed by general elections. The Likud party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, called for snap elections: "It doesn't matter who heads Kadima. They are all partners in this government's total failure. National responsibility requires a return to the people and new elections."

After Tzipi Livni won the leadership election, Olmert officially resigned but remained prime minister, according to the dictates of the law. Even after an official resignation, he remained in power until a new prime minister was sworn in, in order to prevent a government void. Livni tried unsuccessfully to form a new coalition government. After Livni announced she could not form the new government, new parliamentary elections were set for 10 February 2009, and Olmert remained in power until after the elections, just as the law dictates.

Personal life

Olmert's wife, Aliza, is a writer of novels and theater plays, as well as an artist. Aliza is more left-leaning in her politics than her husband. She claimed to have voted for him for the first time in 2006.

The couple has four biological children and an adopted daughter. The oldest daughter, Michal, holds a master's in psychology and leads workshops in creative thinking. Another daughter Dana is a lecturer in literature at the Tel Aviv University, and the editor of a literature series. She is a lesbian and lives with her partner in Tel Aviv. Her parents are accepting of her sexual orientation and partner. Dana is active in the Jerusalem branch of the Israeli human rights organization Machsom Watch. In June 2006 she attended a march in Tel Aviv protesting alleged Israeli complicity in the Gaza beach blast, which made her the subject of bitter criticism from right-wing personalities.

Olmert's father Mordechai, a pioneer of Israel's land settlement and a former member of the Second and Third Knessets, grew up in the Chinese city of Harbin, where he led the local Betar youth movement. Olmert's grandfather J. J. Olmert settled in Harbin after fleeing post-World War I Russia. In 2004, Olmert visited China and paid his respects at the tomb of his grandfather in Harbin. Olmert said that his father had never forgotten his Chinese hometown after moving to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, in 1933, at the age of 22. "When he died at the age of 88, he spoke his last words in Mandarin Chinese", he recalled.

In October 2007, Olmert announced that he had prostate cancer. His doctors declared it to be a minor risk. In April 2009, Olmert's spokesman issued a statement indicating that Olmert's cancer had deteriorated.

Activity after prison term

In 2009, Olmert spoke at various colleges throughout the United States to mixed receptions. In October 2009, he visited Magnolia, Arkansas, and spoke about Israeli farming, technology and Israel's view on Iran. The speech was given at Southern Arkansas University, where he also invited the rural university to form a partnership with Israel's Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 2012, he expressed opposition to a military strike on Iran.

In July 2019, he canceled a planned visit to Switzerland after the country's authorities notified Israel he would be taken for questioning for committing potential war crimes in Operation Cast Lead.

In 2020, Olmert is presented in the media as a very harsh, outspoken and strong-worded critic of the Netanyahu administration and the Likud party.

See also

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