BINYAMINA, Israel—In the tiny town north of Tel Aviv that gave birth to Ehud Olmert, residents speak of the Israeli acting prime minister's childhood with nostalgia and pride.
Growing up here, Olmert was the schoolyard marbles champion and king of the academic trivia games. He was a budding lady's man and a mischievous teen who surreptitiously lowered the socialist party's red flag from the municipal flag pole on May Day.
Now, the 60-year-old is slowly pulling his birthplace, and the rest of Israel, into a new era in which he hopes to become the first Israeli leader to define the permanent borders of Israel through planned withdrawals of Jewish settlements from the occupied West Bank.
Analysts project a strong victory for Olmert's Kadima Party when Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday.
Supporters say Olmert is riding a wave of new pragmatism that demands ultimate security for Israel but also recognizes that a final peace settlement with the Palestinians isn't around the corner. Olmert's vision calls for unilateral withdrawals from some Palestinian-populated areas.
"I think Ehud is the right man," said Sharia Vered, 58, a farmer who grew up down the street from Olmert. "I was in a lot of wars, and I was one of those who said, `Where Jewish blood is spilled, (the land) is ours.'
"But ... things change with time. If you want to reach an agreement, with all the pain involved, we have to give the Arabs a place to live."
Olmert, who can appear dour and imperious and has never been especially popular with Israelis, is one of Israel's longest-serving politicians.
"There is widespread support for Kadima, but it is very shallow. Mr. Olmert doesn't engender a lot of warmth," said Israeli political analyst and author Ari Shavit. "That said, he is a very skillful politician. One of the most intelligent people in government. A coolheaded, able man."
Olmert is the third of four sons born to a Ukrainian mother and a Russian father who immigrated to Palestine in 1933. His father served in the parliament in the 1950s as a member of the right-wing Herut party. Their precocious son began making a name for himself politically in his early 20s.
Speaking in a packed convention hall near Tel Aviv in 1966, he demanded that Herut's beloved leader, Menachem Begin, resign after losing six consecutive elections.
Angry convention delegates reportedly began to close in on Olmert, but Begin waved them off, saying that at least the young Olmert was forthright and not a backstabber.
It was an early example of the style that Olmert would adopt throughout his political career.
In 1973, at 28, he became the youngest member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, where he crusaded against organized crime and political corruption and began what would be a long-term affiliation with the rightist Likud Party.
Olmert developed a lucrative private career as lawyer at a time when Knesset members were allowed to have outside employment. Earning serious money, he developed a taste for expensive cigars.
And while generally hawkish on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he showed flexibility by breaking with his hard-line colleagues to support the Oslo peace process, which led to limited Palestinian self-rule in the 1990s.
In 1993 he unseated longtime incumbent Teddy Kollek to become mayor of Jerusalem, Israel's largest and poorest city.
Critics of his municipal rule, which lasted a decade, say city services weren't very efficient during his tenure and that neglect of the traditionally Arab areas of the city only heightened longstanding tensions between Arabs and Jews.
Hobnobbing with a fast crowd of land developers, campaign fundraisers and big business types, Olmert has managed to avoid—sometimes quite narrowly—getting caught up in scandal. A near miss came several years ago when, as treasurer of the Likud party, he was forced to defend himself in court against charges of complicity in a scheme to supply the party's donors with false invoices.
"Olmert is the embodiment of the new class of Israeli barons, to which he is very close. He is the old-boy network in government in a way we never saw before," said Shavit, referring to Olmert's close relationship with big business.
In 2003, recognizing what he said was a demographic threat to the Jewish and democratic character of Israel caused by the high birth rate of Arabs living in Israeli-held areas, Olmert said that he had no choice but to abandon the dream of an Israel that would include the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the lands Palestinians seek for their own country.
The Arab population explosion would dilute Israel's Jewishness or corrupt its democracy if it insisted on ruling over the Palestinians, Olmert said in an interview with the Hebrew daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot.
The interview paved the way for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to announce a few weeks later that he would withdraw all Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. The withdrawal was carried out last summer.
It wasn't the first time that Sharon used Olmert as a stalking horse for his more controversial ideas. Last November, with the Likud Party in post-disengagement gridlock, Sharon bolted from his longtime political home to form Kadima. Olmert, his deputy prime minister, was immediately by his side.
Sharon's incapacitating stroke in the first week of January propelled Olmert into the job of acting prime minister.
Most commentators have credited him with handling the situation well, maintaining an aura of solemn respect for the stricken Sharon, who remains in a coma, while making it clear that he intends to carry on his mentor's legacy.
To some observers, the delicate circumstances under which Olmert came to power seem to have mellowed him.
But in his birthplace in Binyamina, residents see in the man some of the same qualities they saw in the boy.
After Sharon fell ill, Drora Vered, the wife of Olmert's boyhood friend, called Olmert's office to offer him her best wishes as he stepped into Sharon's job.
She left a message, not expecting to hear back. But a few hours later came a call.
"You don't know how important it was to get congratulations from Binyamina,"
Vered recalled Olmert telling her.
"He's really a human being," she said. "It's not the way people know him. They think he's a snob. They don't know him."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Ehud Olmert
ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060105 Olmert bio
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