An Heir of Difference

Olmert is very different from Sharon. He is resolved, unequivocal and completely focused on the task at hand.

Ehud Olmert's inauguration speeches at the Knesset swearing-in ceremony and when he officially took up residence at the Prime Minister's Office highlight the change in leadership that Israel is undergoing. Olmert is Ariel Sharon's successor, but is not following in his path. The management style of the new prime minister is radically different to that of his predecessors.

Sharon always hated making decisions, preferring instead to keep as many options open as possible, until the last minute, thereby guaranteeing himself freedom to maneuver and room to backtrack if required. For Sharon, committing to anything was akin to being herded into a corral, like the cattle he was so familiar with from his ranch. The decision-making process under Sharon entailed lengthy consultations and the airing of opposing views, which helped him formulate his own position and assess the risks and chances of success.

Olmert is very different. He is resolved, unequivocal and completely focused on the task at hand. He doesn't need long consultations to make up his mind. In Olmert's worldview, it is the job of the leader to plot out the path, and the function of his aides is to facilitate this, not to rephrase his thoughts.

On having the premiership thrust upon him, Olmert set himself, and the country, one key goal - marking out a new border for Israel in the West Bank, a defensible border that will provide the Jewish state with a solid Jewish majority, and will separate us from the Palestinian population. To this end, settlements beyond the separation fence will be evacuated, and strategic settlement blocs will be declared and annexed to Israel.

Unlike his predecessor, Olmert is walking enthusiastically into the corral of the convergence plan. His determination and his inner conviction should not be doubted. He has set aside other national goals and has no aspirations to implement legal or social innovation. It would be enough for him to oversee the massive task of dismantling the settlement enterprise. But he cannot veer from the path he has laid out for himself. Any hesitation, any self-doubt, any delay would be perceived as a sign of weakness.

Which of these is preferable? Rereading the inauguration speeches of some of the past prime ministers shows that when they present clear goals, there is a greater chance that these goals will be implemented. Yitzhak Rabin promised to establish a Palestinian autonomy; Ehud Barak undertook to withdraw from Lebanon within a year. Both of them made good on their promises. When the promises are more vague, or when many goals are set, they simply evaporate.

This was the fate of Barak's "comprehensive Middle East peace plan" and various other revolutions he came up with. A similar fate befell Benjamin Netanyahu's plan for "a comprehensive, profound and significant change" in Israeli society, and the Basic Laws that Sharon promised to legislate.

Sharon's most important decisions - constructing the separation fence and disengaging from Gaza - were mid-term improvisations.

In the dual test of will and ability, Olmert can already put a tick in the intentions column. Now, he has to deliver. He has to convince the public and world leaders that he is capable of steering the convergence plan through the treacherous waters of Israeli politics and Palestinian terror. It won't be easy; but it can be done.

Sharon gave himself two years to implement the pullout from Gaza, and most of the time was spent on political struggles that put the execution of the plan in doubt right up to the last moment. But he was insistent, and the evacuation was completed on time and effectively.

Olmert has the advantage of being less controversial than his predecessor. He comes from the center of the political spectrum, and he does not have a problematic reputation in international circles. He does, however, have two disadvantages: His coalition is shaky, and he has not yet had his mettle tested by the sort of mishaps that caused so many problems for previous prime ministers - mishaps such as intelligence and military snafus, and Palestinian or Jewish terror.

The coming year will be a year of preparation for the convergence, and Olmert will have to work hard on his image as someone who can get the job done. His challenge will be to show that he not only has good intentions, but that he has the ability to deliver.