The Bottom Line / Ehud Olmert - Economic Mystery Man

If it's not one of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spins and there are no last minute surprises, outgoing Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert will be the next Finance Minister.

Despite his extensive political record, Olmert is mystery as far as his economic vision on how to extract the country from its current quagmire is concerned. If appointed, Olmert will bring years of experience as mayor of Jerusalem and as Health Minister in the Shamir government. Both are large and complex systems with massive budgets and therefore one can assume he has gained significant managerial experience. But is that enough to make him a successful finance minister in the current climate?

Political pundits believe Olmert didn't step down as the capital's boss just to be a minister and are convinced his long term plan is to be prime minister. Such ambition can only pull Olmert in two diametrically opposite directions.

He will certainly want to make his mark as the man who rehabilitated Israel's economy and therefore will behave responsibly, even at the cost of confrontations with other ministers and sectors. On the other hand, with long-term considerations in mind, he may want to create political alliances that will serve his bid for the top.

In Jerusalem, he forged alliances with the Orthodox and even bequeathed them the mayoralty, and it would be no surprise if he continued to nurture them, even if they are not part of the emerging coalition, for his long term strategy.

How will Olmert overcome the contradiction between his desire to build political alliances and the needs of the economy that call for painful cuts and the cutting of benefits across the board?

In this case it seems Olmert will have no choice but to side with the economy, and the only way to pave his way to the throne will be by succeeding as finance minister. Olmert is credited with excellent political skills, a trait that will most certainly be required in facing off against the demands of the various ministries and factions. But political savvy alone is not enough to hide the fact that Olmert is no economist and may well need some time to study the issues at hand.

Another question - will Olmert stick with the economic emergency plan currently being put together by Silvan Shalom and the heads of the treasury, or will he want to formulate a new plan that will bear his name?

Olmert's economic outlook is a mystery. The archives overflow with articles about him, but they contain little enlightenment on his macro-economic thoughts. However, one can find plenty of clippings on Olmert run-ins with the treasury when he was both mayor and health minister - so the man who until now has been used to demanding money will have to get used to turning down others who are like he was.