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Acting PM Olmert Seen as Skilled Politician

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Acting PM Olmert Seen as Skilled Politician

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Acting PM Olmert Seen as Skilled Politician

Acting PM Olmert Seen as Skilled Politician

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Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is a popular former mayor of Jerusalem who helped shape Ariel Sharon's revised stance on Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Zev Chafets, a former columnist for The Jerusalem Post, tells Scott Simon that Olmert has sophisticated political skills.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Today we're keeping close watch on developments in Israel, where Prime Minister Sharon remains in critical condition following brain surgery Friday to relieve pernicious swelling and bleeding. Mr. Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke this week. The outlook is grim. Ehud Olmert is now acting prime minister of Israel. He had been Mr. Sharon's deputy and some time before that the mayor of Jerusalem. We're joined now by Ze'ev Chafets, a longtime columnist for the Jerusalem Post. He worked for Prime Minister Begin and he's known Ehud Olmert for more than 30 years.

Ze'ev, thanks very much for being with us.

ZE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And tell us about the balancing act Mr. Olmert has at this point. On the one hand, he's not quite prime minister. He's the acting prime minister. He's getting national security briefings. On the other hand, he's got an election coming soon.

CHAFETS: Well, Mr. Olmert has to be, first and foremost, respectful. As long as Sharon is in the hospital and as long as he's still alive, Olmert has to be cognizant of that, and he will be, and sensitive to it. Olmert is a wonderful politician. He's one of the very few true Israeli politicians, as opposed to military heroes or, you know, comic book figures or something, like Netanyahu, who became prime minister. He's the kind of guy that you could imagine as the president of the United States in terms of his political skills.

SIMON: Yeah.

CHAFETS: And he'll know how to balance this out, I'm quite sure.

SIMON: If there's--the second toughest job in Israel after prime minister has to be mayor of Jerusalem, and he was a very popular mayor of Jerusalem.

CHAFETS: Yeah, he was a very good mayor of Jerusalem. He's--as I say, he's extremely smart, he's very affable, and he's very tricky. And that's a good combo for a place like Jerusalem. He was able to balance things off pretty well, and I imagine he'll, you know, do something similar--or at least attempt to do something similar in setting up a national government.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. What about the reports that we've seen over the past few days really that he was, if not exactly behind, he encouraged Ariel Sharon to construct the policy of withdrawal from Gaza?

CHAFETS: Well, I know that--I mean, I think it's fair to say that he was one of Sharon's more moderating forces. He's been sort of a--suspected in the Likud always of being a closet moderate. Partly that's because he talks like one, he looks like one, and his wife is sort of a well-known liberal in Israel. And I think it's a fair thing to say that he played some role in that, but I also think that knowing Sharon, that it's unlikely that Ehud had a great influence on Sharon; probably more the other way around.

SIMON: And do you see there being a contest for leadership of the Kadima Party? Is it a party really yet without Ariel Sharon?

CHAFETS: Well, it's--you know, if you have a party and people come, it's a party. And what--you know, I think that there won't be a contested leadership going into this coming election in March, but as soon as they start to actually function as a party and they get past this, you know, period of respect for Sharon, there'll be infighting as there always is in Israel. Ehud is respected, but he's far from being, you know, the unanimous choice of his peers as number one in the generation. And there will be others who contest him inside the Kadima Party and also from other parties.

SIMON: Ze'ev Chafets, Israeli author, longtime columnist with the Jerusalem Post and political operative in Israel, thanks very much for being with us.

CHAFETS: You're very welcome.

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