Continuation and Change

Demosthenes he's not. But Ehud Olmert's maiden speech "in the name of the Israeli government," delivered at the Herzliya Conference, was a political tour de force.

He spoke directly to the audience at home (40 percent of TV viewers were tuned in) rather than burying his nose in his notes. In the confident voice of someone who knows what kind of political challenge lies ahead, he didn't stutter or stumble over his words. He didn't raise his voice or make threats. He didn't settle scores or argue. He assumed the pose of future prime minister as if it were custom-made for him.

He could have grabbed headlines around the world if he had threatened to annihilate Iran, for instance, or issued an ultimatum that he would not negotiate with the Palestinian Authority if Hamas won the elections. Behind closed doors, Olmert said the important thing about his speech was that it put him in prime minister mode. In a recent test of his leadership abilities, he allowed the Palestinians to vote in East Jerusalem, before the Americans demanded that he do so.

On two points he diverged from Sharon in nuance. One point, directed at the settlers, was that the government was not prepared to surrender to a handful of lawbreakers, and would insist on dismantling the outposts. And the second point was that if Israel found itself in a situation where it had no negotiating partner on the Palestinian side (a realistic possibility now that Hamas has won), he would act as he saw fit - a hint of more unilateral action to come, and another deviation from Sharon's declared policy.

History has shown that No. 2s do not always follow in the footsteps of their bosses. Franklin Roosevelt's vice president, Harry Truman, a simple man who never even went to college, became one of the greatest American presidents after Roosevelt's death. He ushered in the nuclear era with his decision to drop two atom bombs on Japan.

Anwar Sadat, No. 2 to Egypt's adored president Abdul Gamal Nasser, was called "hmar" (jackass) by the Egyptians. But after the death of Nasser, who dragged his people from one misfortune to another, Sadat surprised Israel with the October war, which led to a peace treaty between the two countries. Levi Eshkol, perceived as a weakling, coined the phrase "continuation and change" after succeeding David Ben-Gurion. In practice, he concentrated on change. He laid the infrastructure for the Six Day War, and wiped out Ben-Gurion politically.

What dominated Olmert's speech was the tone, not the music. He set himself up as Sharon's heir, but he is not Sharon. Without Sharon, I'm not sure he would have chosen this path, evacuating settlements against the will of the Likud, and transforming Kadima ex nihilo into a peace party aiming to grab the reins.

The big question is whether Kadima can maintain the burgeoning power and strength reflected in the surveys even without Sharon. Israel's illustrious pollster, Dr. Mina Tzemach, thinks Kadima is a fait accompli. The public is not in love with Bibi, and there is a sense that Peretz has some ripening yet to do. But now that people have had a taste of the hope inspired by a centrist peace party, and no alternatives exist, Kadima has become an entity in its own right. In private talks, Olmert says that Kadima will bring together people with experience and boast an impressive team of leaders.

Sixty days to elections is a long time, and it's important that during this time, Olmert make no mistakes. The test right now is how he handles Hamas' victory. Will there be any dialogue with it? Olmert is determined to continue from the point where Sharon left off, but what would Sharon do in such a case? Olmert doesn't project the kind of bulldozer power that Sharon had, but it seems more than likely that he will figure out where this new development should take us.

Olmert ended his speech on this note: "My hope is that we shall be able to stand before the prime minister and say, 'Your light has illumined our path'." These words are both poetic and political. Olmert is the man who will put together the next government. Whether it symbolizes continuation or change, the important thing is that this government will rid us of the nightmare of occupation.