Exactly four months after assuming Israel’s top office amid tragedy, Ehud Olmert has been confirmed as prime minister, and hopes to lead the Jewish state to security, if not peace.
Olmert was sworn in last week, along with his Cabinet, after the Knesset approved the coalition government he formed to push through a plan for withdrawing from swathes of the West Bank and setting Israel’s borders, unilaterally if necessary, in the absence of peace talks with the Palestinians.
In his address to fellow lawmakers, Olmert had fond words for Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister struck down and left in a coma by a stroke Jan. 4. But Olmert soon made clear he intended to be no less of a statesman, following up on last year’s pullout from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank with even more sweeping moves in the West Bank.
“Even when everything around him was stormy and turbulent, Arik remained in the eye of the storm, quiet and confident, his hand holding the wheel steady and focused,” Olmert said. “The disengagement from the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria was an essential first step in this direction, but the main part is still ahead.”
He continued, “Partition of the land for the purpose of guaranteeing a Jewish majority is the lifeline of Zionism. I know how hard it is, especially for the settlers and those faithful to Eretz Yisrael, but I am convinced, with all my heart, that it is necessary and that we must do it with dialogue, internal reconciliation and broad consensus.”
Israeli media reports said Olmert’s plan to evacuate some 60,000 settlers from isolated West Bank communities while annexing major settlement blocs could get under way within two years.
The prime minister extended an olive branch to the Palestinian Authority — he is expected to meet in late May with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas — but with the Palestinian Authority’s Hamas-led government refusing to renounce terrorism, few expect a peace accord.
“The State of Israel is prepared to wait for this necessary change in the Palestinian Authority,” Olmert said. “That said, we will not wait forever. The State of Israel does not want to, nor can it, suspend the fateful decisions regarding its future until the Palestinian Authority succeeds in implementing the commitments it undertook in the past.”
With its three partner factions, Olmert’s centrist Kadima Party controls 67 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, a narrow majority that will be tested by the prospect of another pullout.
Among the 49 lawmakers who voted against the government were both the right-wing Likud Party, which leads the political opposition, and Israeli Arab factions — an unusual alliance suggesting that Olmert will be criticized as being both too soft and too tough on the Palestinians.
But he received unequivocal support from Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu for tough words on arch-foe Iran and its nuclear program.
“The pursuit by this rogue and terror-sponsoring regime of nuclear weapons is currently the most dangerous global development, and the international community must do its utmost to stop it,” Olmert said. “The State of Israel, which the evil leaders in Tehran have turned into a target for annihilation, is not helpless and has the ability to defend itself against any threat.”
Who’s Who in the New Government
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, seated left, and Israeli President Moshe Katsav, seated right, pose for a group photo with Olmert’s new 25-member Cabinet at the presidential residence in Jerusalem. (First row, from left) Yacov Ben Yizri, Gil Pensioners Party, health; Rafi Eitan, Gil, minister without portfolio (pensioner affairs); Yitzhak Cohen, Shas, minister without portfolio (religious councils); Olmert; Katsav; Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Kadima, regional development; Deputy Prime Minister Amir Peretz, Labor, defense; Yuli Tamir, Labor, education; and Ze’ev Boim, Kadima, immigrant absorption. (Second row, from left) Eitan Cabel, Labor, minister without portfolio (Israel Broadcasting Authority); Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, Kadima, transportation; Ophir Pines-Paz, Labor, culture and sport; Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai, Shas, industry, trade and labor; Meir Sheetrit, Kadima, housing and construction; Ronnie Bar-On, Kadima, interior; Ya’acov Edri, Kadima, minister without portfolio(Cabinet liaison); Deputy Prime Minister Tzipi Livni, Kadima, foreign affairs; Haim Ramon, Kadima, justice; Isaac Herzog, Labor, tourism; and Shalom Simhon, Labor, agriculture. (Back row, from left) Gideon Ezra, Kadima, environment; Meshulam Nahari, Shas, without portfolio; Avi Dichter, Kadima, internal security; Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Labor, national infrastructures; Avraham Hirchson, Kadima, finance; Ariel Atias, Shas, communications; and Israel Maimon, Cabinet secretary. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA
Following are thumbnail biographical sketches of the main players in Israel’s new government.
•Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: A charismatic ex-mayor of Jerusalem who filled Ariel Sharon’s post when the former prime minister was crippled by a stroke in January, Olmert lacks Sharon’s military pedigree but is considered a shrewd statesman. A scion of the long-dominant Likud Party, Olmert was quick to follow Sharon when the former premier left the Likud to form the more centrist Kadima Party last year. Olmert is considered a pragmatist keen to follow up last year’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank with more far-reaching moves in the West Bank, and to set Israel’s border unilaterally in the absence of peace talks with the Palestinians.
•Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni: As the second woman, after the iconic Golda Meir, to hold the Foreign Affairs portfolio, some expect Livni to similarly rise to top office one day. A one-time Mossad operative, Livni cut her political teeth as immigration and justice minister in previous Likud-led governments. Well before Hamas won Palestinian Authority elections in January, Livni invested months in convincing Western nations to isolate the Islamic terrorist group.
•Defense Minister Amir Peretz: Chairman of the Labor Party, senior partner to Olmert’s Kadima in the coalition government, Peretz secured the key Defense Ministry — raising eyebrows given his lack of military experience. A veteran trade unionist, Peretz is considered a Labor firebrand, but since toppling Shimon Peres as party head last year he has alienated colleagues who accuse him of lacking diplomatic vision.
•Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson: An Olmert confidant, Hirchson is expected to press ahead with free-market reforms championed by former Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As tourism minister in the previous government, Hirchson helped introduce more competition in Israeli commercial aviation and pursued joint projects with his Palestinian Authority counterpart.
•Minister of Regional Development Shimon Peres: As Israel’s elder statesman, Peres was guaranteed a senior role in the new government. He is expected to focus his efforts on developing the Galilee and Negev, areas that have received new attention since the Gaza Strip withdrawal prompted a quest to re-house former settlers. Winner of the Nobel peace prize for his role as architect of the Oslo peace accords, Peres could also lend diplomatic polish to Olmert’s plan to annex West Bank settlement blocs.
•Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter: A former head of the Shin Bet domestic security service who backed the assassination of top Palestinian terrorists, Dichter has made the most dramatic leap from Israel’s security ranks to politics. He is expected to apply his experience to fighting a crime wave sweeping the Jewish state.
The other members of the Cabinet, with their parties and positions, are:
•Ariel Atias, Shas, Minister of Communications;
•Ronnie Bar-On, Kadima, Minister of the Interior;
•Ya’acov Ben Yizri, Gil, Minister of Health;
•Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Labor, Minister of National Infrastructures;
•Ze’ev Boim, Kadima, Minister of Immigrant Absorption;
•Eitan Cabel, Labor, Minister without portfolio (responsible for the Israel Broadcasting Authority);
•Yitzhak Cohen, Shas, Minister without portfolio (responsible for the religious councils);
•Ya’akov Edri, Kadima, Minister without portfolio (responsible for liaison with the Knesset);
•Rafi Eitan, Gil, Minister without portfolio (responsible for pensioners);
•Gideon Ezra, Kadima, Minister of the Environment;
•Isaac Herzog, Labor, Minister of Tourism;
•Shaul Mofaz, Kadima, Minister of Transportation;
•Meshulam Nahari, Shas, Minister without portfolio;
•Ophir Pines-Paz, Labor, Minister of Culture and Sport;
•Haim Ramon, Kadima, Minister of Justice;
•Meir Sheetrit, Kadima, Minister of Housing and Construction;
•Shalom Simhon, Labor, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development;
•Yuli Tamir, Labor, Minister of Education;
•Eli Yishai, Shas, Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor.