When Ehud Olmert was a teenage leader of the right-wing Betar youth movement in the 1950s, he would mark May Day by tearing down the red flag that hung over the trade union building in his northern village of Binyamina. For Olmert and his friends, that flag symbolized what they referred to as "the Vichy government" of Labor Zionism, which had betrayed the land of Israel by twice accepting its partition—first in 1923, when the British created Transjordan, and then in 1947, when the Untied Nations divided what was left of historic Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Betar's fantasy map of a once- and-future Israel—incorporating the West Bank and the Kingdom of Jordan—hung on the walls of the clubhouse where Olmert served as "commander," and it was imprinted on the patch of his military-style uniform. At meetings, he would lead his scouts in singing, "Both banks of the Jordan [River], this one is ours and that one too."
While Olmert eventually accepted the loss of Transjordan, he devoted his political career to maintaining Israeli control over the territory won in the 1967 Six Day War. As a Likud Knesset member, he voted against Prime Minister Menachem Begin's decision to cede Sinai to Egypt in exchange for peace. And, as mayor of Jerusalem beginning in 1993, he defended Israel's right to govern the united city; his campaign posters invoked the nightmare image of PLO flags hanging from the Old City walls. Asked by a journalist in the 1980s to describe the most important public post he had held, he answered without hesitation, "Commander of the Binyamina branch of Betar."
Yet Olmert, acting prime minister and heir to Ariel Sharon as head of the new centrist Kadima Party, could now become the Israeli leader who presides over the partition of greater Israel--and even of united Jerusalem, an act he would have once considered treason. In the absence of a credible Palestinian partner for peace, Olmert supports unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank; indeed, he publicly endorsed unilateralism even before Sharon did.
The question Israelis are asking, though, is whether Olmert can handle it. After all, uprooting tens of thousands of ideologically committed settlers from the biblical heartland is likely to be far more politically traumatic than the withdrawal from Gaza. The conventional wisdom here is that, without Sharon, no further unilateral withdrawals are possible. Only Sharon and his military credentials, goes the argument, could have convinced the public to withdraw from most of the West Bank, despite the threat of Palestinian missiles falling on greater Tel Aviv. Olmert, by contrast, enjoys no such credibility: His career in uniform was mostly spent as a reporter for the army newspaper. But Olmert's ideological background affords him advantages that could well make the new leader of Kadima a more effective proponent of withdrawal than skeptics will admit.
FOR ONE THING, Olmert—with roots in Revisionist Zionism, the movement that spawned Betar and eventually the Likud—has right-wing bona fides that Sharon lacked. Sharon grew up in the Labor movement and related to the territories in pragmatic security terms. For Olmert, though, settling the territories was an historical imperative. "The ideological transformation that Ehud and I and others have made is far more painful than Sharon's," asserts Moshe Amirav, an Olmert friend from Betar days, who was expelled from the Likud for meeting with PLO leaders in the late '80s. "For us, separating from greater Israel meant losing our dream."
Those ideological credentials give Olmert the selfconfidence to confront the settlers and their supporters without the unease that Sharon at times revealed, as when he initially avoided meeting with Gaza settlers to explain his about- face and then failed to defend himself vigorously against settler attacks. Olmert, by contrast, relishes a fight with opponents of withdrawal. Last August, on the first day of the Gaza pullout, Olmert represented the government at a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport to welcome 250 new American immigrants, most of them Orthodox and opponents of withdrawal. They were joined by several hundred Israeli family and friends, who were warned by organizers to keep politics out of the event. Yet it was Olmert who turned the event political. Goading his audience, he announced that the Gaza withdrawal was the beginning of a new era for Israel. When the crowd inevitably responded with boos and shouts of "traitor," Olmert smiled and taunted them back. Referring to Israel's demographic crisis, he said, "Maybe if you or a few million of you had come earlier, we wouldn't have had to leave Gaza."
That feistiness is a trait he acquired in Betar. To be a Betar member in 1950s Israel meant being the ultimate iconoclast. In a pioneering society that equated socialism with Zionism, capitalist Betar championed an alternative Zionist history whose heroes were Revisionists and villains were Laborites. Denouncing Israeli relations with Germany as a betrayal of the Jews who died in the Holocaust, Olmert and his friends picketed movie theaters that screened German films and refused to ride in Mercedes taxis. Even their uniforms marked them as anachronisms: Betar leaders wore light-blue ties on their dark blue uniforms--this, in a country whose prime minister went tieless. "We were considered strange, even lunatics, but we were proud of being outcasts," recalls Amirav.
Olmert has always been an in-your-face politician. He began his career in national politics by demanding that Menachem Begin resign as head of Herut, the precursor of the Likud, because of his electoral failures--an unprecedented attack on Begin's stature within the party. As the Knesset's youngest member at age 28, he joined with another junior member of parliament, left-wing provocateur Yossi Sarid, to challenge organized crime in soccer. (Olmert himself would later be investigated, and acquitted, on charges of campaign financing irregularities.) He never managed to build a wide political base, notes one Likud activist, because of his patronizing attitude: "Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] will agree with whatever you say and then go ahead and do the opposite, but Olmert wants you to know you're wrong."
SPECULATION ABOUT WHY Olmert changed his lifelong political commitment ranges from family pressures—his wife is a supporter of the left-wing Meretz party, and a daughter is active in a group monitoring Israeli checkpoints in the territories—to his tenure as Jerusalem's mayor. Miki Cohen, one of Olmert's mayoral aides, suggests that Olmert was transformed by his repeated exposure to terrorist attacks. "He went to every terror site as soon as the attack happened and saw the most terrible things," says Cohen. "He also went to most of the funerals, and then visited the families. Over the years, I often heard Revisionist ideas from him. But my sense is that those experiences convinced him that we had to try a different way."
Amirav, who teaches public policy, also sees Olmert's tenure as mayor of Jerusalem as a turning point: "He realized that maintaining control over 200, 000 Palestinians endangers Israeli rule in the city. I once asked him if he had a solution for Jerusalem. He said he did, but he wouldn't tell me, because he's afraid to tell himself." Olmert, who, as mayor, supported Jewish settlements in the Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Silwan, has gone on the record as supporting Israeli withdrawal from Jerusalem's outer Arab neighborhoods, but not from the Old City. Still, he will allow East Jerusalem Palestinians to vote in the upcoming Palestinian elections, a move opposed by the right as opening the way for repartitioning the city.
Some old comrades are enraged at Olmert for what they perceive as an even greater betrayal of the Revisionist legacy than his support for partition. In a speech last summer to a dovish American group, the Israel Policy Forum, Olmert claimed that Israelis long for peace because "we are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies." Notes Yisrael Medad of Jerusalem's Menachem Begin Heritage Center: "It's one thing to endorse partition because of demographic reasons. But to play the defeatist in the middle of a war is a repudiation of everything Revisionist Zionism always stood for."
Indeed, that kind of "defeatist" rhetoric will play into the hands of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who, with Sharon's departure, has emerged as Kadima's most formidable rival. Labor's Amir Peretz is a lightweight with no security experience—hardly the man to reassure an anxious nation facing missile attacks from Gaza, periodic shelling from Hezbollah, an unstable West Bank, and an Iranian atomic bomb. In a recent poll, only 9 percent of Sephardim said they would vote for the Moroccan-born Peretz, Israel's first Sephardi candidate for prime minister.
Netanyahu, a former prime minister, will remind Israelis that, under his tenure, terrorism reached its lowest point over the last decade. And he'll also remind them that he warned that the Gaza withdrawal would result in Qassam rockets falling on the coastal city of Ashkelon. At the time, he was mocked by the press as an alarmist; now, though, rockets have hit the outskirts of Ashkelon. And, if those rocket attacks intensify, Netanyahu's warnings against further unilateral withdrawals will gain even more credibility.
Olmert's advantage is that he is the designated heir of one of Israel's most beloved prime ministers. By contrast, Netanyahu is widely resented, even among Likud voters, both for undermining Sharon's authority within the party and for his welfare cutbacks as finance minister. And the backing he has received from the settlers' umbrella group, the Yesha Council, has reinforced his inflexible image.
Still, Olmert faces several challenges. The first is to keep Kadima's politicians from bickering over power and policies and destroying the party in its infancy. So far, Kadima's leaders are acting with a sense of national responsibility rare in Israel's daily politics but typical in times of crisis. Though several Kadima figures see themselves as potential party heads, they've all accepted Olmert's leadership. Shimon Peres, the only Kadima politician who initially wavered in backing Olmert, was shamed by the Israeli press into belatedly endorsing him and has been appointed to the party's second slot.
Olmert's second challenge is to clarify what Kadima stands for. Despite his support for unilateral withdrawal, some Kadima figures, like former Shin Bet head Avi Dichter, openly oppose it. Under Sharon, the party's platform was essentially, "Trust me." Olmert won't be able to get away with Sharon's deliberate ambiguity.
Most of all, Olmert must convince the electorate that he's a hawkish dove—that is, not just flexible on territory but hard-line on security. In conveying that message, Olmert will be bolstered by several ex-Revisionists who, like him, have made the journey from right to center. His most important ally will be Kadima's candidate for foreign minister, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who grew up in Betar and comes from a family steeped in Revisionist pathos; engraved on the tombstone of her father—a hero of the pre-state Irgun underground—is the old Revisionist map, including both banks of the Jordan River. The more Olmert can remind Israelis of where he comes from, the more they will trust him when he tries to pry Israel from its bank on the Jordan.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor to The New Republic. This article appeared in the January 23, 2006, issue of the magazine.