A Traveler's Prayer for Olmert

Olmert's test will be in translating intentions into deeds: Will he stumble at the moment of truth, or will he find within himself the greatness of spirit of a determined leader and guide?

Ehud Olmert who will hold his first cabinet meeting today as the elected prime minister of the State of Israel is a reasonable choice for the job, considering the field of candidates. In terms of both his experience in public life and past decisions, he surpasses Yitzhak Rabin's talents in being elected to his first term in 1974, as well as Benjamin Netanyahu's in his victory over Shimon Peres in 1996. In terms of his political skills and emotional intelligence, he is better than Ehud Barak, who commanded the ship of state from July 1999 until February 2001. Olmert is of the generation of native-born, sabra Israelis that brings to the position of prime minister the conceptual world and the temperament of the country in which it was raised.

None of the sabra prime ministers was a giant, not even Rabin in his second term. Nor is Olmert a Titan of a leader. It is doubtful that he professes to be one, despite his well-developed sense of self-worth. Like his predecessors, he is a rank-and-file politician, with all his virtues and drawbacks, who has had his eye on the prime minister's chair throughout his 40-year political career, whether or not he was aware of it.

But managing the affairs of state, even in Israel's 59th year, takes more than technical skill; the rapidly changing circumstances, characteristic of the state, forces leaders to make decisions with grave historical implications. One such circumstance was the 1967 War, which led Moshe Dayan, the sabra, to take the steps that led to the unification of Jerusalem and control of the territories. Another was the secret Israeli-Palestinian dialog that resulted in Rabin's decision to complete the Oslo Accords. The results of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, which led Ariel Sharon to end the Israeli presence in Gaza, were another such set of circumstances.

Thus, anyone seeking to lead the country must be in possession of an ideological compass, a worldview that can serve as a guide when events necessitate a change in direction. Olmert is aware of this, and to his credit he has announced his credo publicly. In addition, he sounds like someone who ran for election specifically in order to realize his vision of separating Israel from most of the territory of the West Bank.

In this aspect, Olmert is more ideologically constricted than any other prime minister of his generation and he cannot evade these bonds if he wants to avoid ending his term in disgrace. He speaks about making significant changes to the borders of the state and calls the partitioning of the land the lifeline of Zionism. These statements are extremely explicit and also extremely courageous.

No elected Israeli prime minister has ever spoken about the future of the territories in such terms. It can be assumed that no Labor Party prime minister would have dared to express his intentions in this way publicly. (Amram Mitzna came close when he ran for the position.) When Olmert chooses to put the withdrawal from most of Judea and Samaria at the center of the government's agenda, when he declares in the Knesset at the cabinet's swearing-in that this plan is the foundation of the government, he is committing himself to a road from which there is no return.

Olmert's test will be in translating intentions into deeds: Will he stumble at the moment of truth, or will he find within himself the greatness of spirit of a determined leader and guide? Will his day-to-day decisions, which will involve managing the ongoing crisis with the Palestinians, be derived from his declared goal or will they be a recycling of the familiar responses? In his negotiations with the settlers, will he demonstrate cowardice or authority? This man, who has been accused more than once of hedonism and of exploiting his public position for his own interests, is now binding himself to a historical step that is aimed only at the public good and which will also increase his personal vulnerability. He deserves a traveler's prayer.