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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 March 2006, 11:37 GMT 12:37 UK
Profile: Olmert now centre stage
Ehud Olmert speaks after Kadima's election victory
Ehud Olmert was born into Israel's right-wing political elite
Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert led the centrist Kadima party, only four months after it was founded by Ariel Sharon, to victory in March's general election.

Acknowledging the party's victory, Mr Olmert stood beneath a large picture of the stricken prime minister, who has been in a coma since suffering a massive stroke in January.

Mr Olmert is widely seen as one of Mr Sharon's closest allies, although he does not share his military background.

Appointed finance minister last year, Mr Olmert joined the cabinet in 2003.

He has been a strong supporter of Mr Sharon's plans to withdraw Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

His ideological roots, though, are on the political right.

Youngest MP

Son of a founder of the militant Zionist group Irgun, Mr Olmert was born into political royalty in 1945, just three years before the establishment of the Jewish state itself.

He briefly served in the Israeli army as an infantry officer and a correspondent for the military weekly journal, Bamachane, before studying law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1973, he became the Israeli parliament's youngest MP after standing on the ticket of former Irgun leader Menachem Begin's right-wing Likud party.

However, Mr Olmert and the right-wing elite were outsiders in a country then controlled by Socialist Zionists, recalls Dan Meridor, a former Likud government minister and lifelong friend.

Their moment came in 1977, when Likud swept to power.

Guile and charm

Mr Olmert was zealous in fighting organised crime but also gained a name as a ruthless operator and won few friends.

Appointed minister without portfolio in 1988, he became a true political contender when he was made mayor of Jerusalem in 1993.

With the disputed hill Har Homa in the background, then Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert speaks to reporters during a press conference in 1997
Olmert opposed earlier territorial concessions to the Palestinians

There he used his considerable guile and charm to build difficult alliances with the ultra-orthodox, a vital constituency in Jerusalem.

In those days he spoke uncompromisingly as one of the Likud faithful of his belief in Israel's rights over Jerusalem as the undivided and eternal capital of the Jewish people, and of its hold over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Indeed, he strengthened Israel's control over East Jerusalem - the Arab area of the city taken in the 1967 war - by promoting building projects for Jews while rigorously enforcing demolition orders against Palestinian homes.

Former Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi says Arab residents in Jerusalem remember his time with little fondness.

"Although he claimed he would do more for East Jerusalem than any other mayor, that he would provide services and infrastructure and so on, he proceeded to do exactly the same if not worse," Ms Ashrawi said.

"He continued land occupations, the closure of Palestinian institutions and of course [provided] no services to Palestinians. The situation deteriorated in terms of schools, roads, everything."

Corruption allegations

Many Jewish Jerusalemites also felt let down by the mayor. The non-religious professional classes fled the city in droves, as it got poorer and increasingly run-down.

Dafna Baram was news editor of Kol Ha'ir, the left-leaning Jerusalem newspaper which became Mr Olmert's nemesis, pursuing corruption allegations against him and his administration.

"There was feeling that the city was getting uglier and uglier and the mayor wasn't interested," she said.

"Ehud Olmert spent 20% of his time as mayor out of the city and, in a period when there were many bombings and the Jerusalemites felt they were suffering a lot, this was the thing that enraged our readers the most."

However, Mr Meridor portrays his friend as a man of the world, who loves sport and has good connections in Washington and elsewhere.

Changing mindset

Indeed, Mr Olmert has proved difficult to pigeonhole, with a wife and children whose politics are far to the left of his own.

Ehud Olmert talks to Ariel Sharon in the Knesset (file photo)
Olmert was seen as Ariel Sharon's right-hand man

Gradually, his ideas began to drift from the traditional viewpoint of the Israeli right wing - he opposed both the 1978 Camp David accords with Egypt and the 1993 Oslo agreement with the Palestinians - and in doing so, reflected a change in the mindset of the wider Israeli population.

A key member of Mr Sharon's government, he talked of the need for Israel to make painful choices in order to preserve its Jewish and democratic character - by giving up Palestinian lands in Gaza and the West Bank.

"He was one of the first in our political camp who spoke of the need to reach a compromise with the Palestinians that would include a partition of the land, giving them a part of the land we believe is ours and they believe is theirs," said Mr Meridor.

Last summer, Mr Olmert's plans became reality as Jewish settlers were forcibly removed from the Gaza Strip.

The decision provoked ire from many Likud MPs and Mr Sharon finally left the party in November to found Kadima. Mr Olmert soon followed.

When Mr Sharon suffered a stroke on 4 January, Mr Olmert took over the leadership of both the government and party.

Kadima moved quickly to project him as a capable and experienced heir, and he established his credentials on the issue of security earlier this month by capturing the Palestinian militant leader, Ahmed Saadat, from a prison in the West Bank town of Jericho.

New chapter

Mr Olmert welcomed Kadima's haul of 28 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, saying it marked the beginning of a new chapter in Israeli history.

Israeli settlers clash with police at Amona settlement
Any withdrawals from the West Bank will face tough opposition

"Israeli wants to move forward, wants Kadima. In this moment, at the end of the battle, we return to be one people, a united people," he told party members after the vote.

The Kadima leader also said he believed the result was an endorsement of his party's plan to establish Israel's borders permanently, even if it meant withdrawing from more Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

"In the next short period we aim to bring a permanent border of Israel as a Jewish state with a stable Jewish majority and a democratic society." he said.

"We will work towards this with negotiation - with agreement, with our Palestinian neighbours. This is our wish - this is also our prayer."

The policy will face tough opposition from both Israeli nationalists and settlers - and the Palestinians if Mr Olmert fulfils his promise to impose the borders unilaterally if they object.

And with just over a fifth of the seats in parliament, Mr Olmert may have trouble forming and maintaining a stable governing coalition.

Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's victory speech

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