Olmert widely unpopular

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — A year after Ariel Sharon’s stroke abruptly propelled him into the prime minister’s seat, Ehud Olmert finds himself badly out of favour and under a darkening cloud of scandal.

On Thursday, the one-year anniversary of his unexpected rise to power, the Dahaf Research Institute released a poll showing that 77 per cent of the country thinks Olmert is not functioning well. Olmert long coveted the prime minister’s seat. But the 61-year-old lawyer, with his acerbic tongue, was not popular with ordinary Israelis, or his political associates.

Sharon’s incapacitating January 4 stroke suddenly spun Olmert’s political fortunes around. It landed Olmert, then vice prime minister, at Israel’s helm, where he successfully won an election less than three months later.

The job, however, has brought him more grief than glory.

The Hamas-led Palestinian Cabinet that took power shortly before he did opposes Israel’s very existence and refuses to disarm. The Palestinians’ moderate president, Mahmoud Abbas, hasn’t been able to dominate his Hamas rivals.

Continued attacks from Gaza, the seizure of three Israeli soldiers by Palestinian and Lebanese fighters, and the inconclusive outcome of Israel’s summer war in Lebanon have damaged his leadership credentials.

Instead, they’ve forced Olmert to abandon his main diplomatic agenda, a unilateral withdrawal from large swaths of the West Bank. Growing allegations of corruption, which have swirled around him for years, only made things worse.

In the poll published Thursday, 50 per cent of Israelis blamed events of the past year for Olmert’s woes, while 31 per cent blamed Olmert’s personality. Sixty per cent questioned Olmert’s integrity, the survey showed. The poll, conducted for Knesset TV, questioned 420 people and had a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

Other polls showed that Olmert would not even win the nomination of his own Kadima Party if a new election were held.

Political allies, critics and commentators agree that Olmert had a terrible year — but were divided over the cause.

Avraham Diskin, a professor political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said circumstances were largely to blame for Olmert’s “clearly unsuccessful” first year.

But despite all the pressure, he did not crack, and that in itself is noteworthy, he said.

“Here’s a guy who lost altitude and popularity in an unprecedented fashion, in large part a matter of circumstances and because of his image as a person who is not the straightest,” he said. “I hope he didn’t commit crimes, both for his sake and for Israel’s.” An associate of Olmert’s, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of their work, described the prime minister as troubled by the problems, but able to soldier on despite them.

“It’s very challenging — there’s no question,” the associate said. “But it’s not a sense of doomsday in any way whatsoever. … I’m not saying he has thick skin. But I think what he has is a purpose. And he has motivation.” Olmert’s latest challenge is a new bribery and fraud scandal entangling his longtime office manager and the highest levels of the Israeli Tax Authority, whose chief he appointed.

Although police insist there is no direct link to Olmert himself, the affair hasn’t helped dispel the whiff of corruption that has stuck to him for years, despite the fact that he has never been convicted of a crime.

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