JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- While Ariel Sharon lay hospitalized after a serious stroke, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had no trouble imagining over the weekend what his boss, nicknamed Arik, would expect from the government during his absence.
"If I could speak with him this morning and ask, 'Arik, what would you tell us? What would you want us to do?' he would say: 'I appreciate the fact that you are all concerned about my health. Thank you, but get to work,'" Olmert said, sitting beside the empty leather chair usually occupied by Sharon during a Sunday Cabinet meeting.
"And this is what we will continue to do," Olmert added.
Speaking on Sharon's behalf comes easily to Olmert. Since his appointment as Israel's deputy prime minister in 2003, Olmert has worked as one of Sharon's closest allies and as the person who floats Sharon's policies and ideas, among them the controversial proposal to dismantle Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
But Olmert might soon be called on to be more than Sharon's voice. If Sharon is incapable of resuming his duties, Olmert is the most likely candidate to lead Sharon's new centrist party, Kadima, in national elections March 28. Recent public opinion polls show that the party has a strong chance of emerging as the largest party in parliament, and Olmert as prime minister.
If Olmert becomes the next prime minister, it would complete his long quest to reach the summit of political power in Israel. Along the way, he has served as a member of parliament, as mayor of Jerusalem and as head of several government ministries, most recently the Ministry of Finance.
"He is today the single most experienced minister in Sharon's Cabinet. He is the strategist behind many of Sharon's decisions," said Arye Carmon, president of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.
But many Israelis wonder whether Olmert has what it takes to govern, especially when it means having to fill the large vacancy left by Sharon. Olmert is being tested, seeking to earn the trust of an uneasy nation, holding Sharon's young party together for the election and opening a dialogue with the Palestinians.
Critics and many analysts describe Olmert as "arrogant" and as "ruthless" with political enemies. And yet, analysts say he is widely regarded as the best chance for Israel, if not to jump-start some type of peace process, at least to realize Sharon's goals of defining the permanent borders of Israel and perhaps a Palestinian state.
As acting prime minister, Olmert faces difficult issues in the weeks ahead. The government still seems unsure whether to allow Jerusalem's Arab residents to vote in Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for Jan. 25. The Bush administration has pressed Israel to do whatever is necessary to allow the voting to take place. Some Israelis, however, want voting restricted to the West Bank and Gaza Strip and strongly object to Hamas, the Islamic militant group, appearing on the ballot.
Olmert may also have to contend with the potential uproar created by a planned evacuation of Jewish settlers who have taken over a former Palestinian wholesale market in the West Bank city of Hebron. As always, there is also the question of how Olmert would respond to an attack by Palestinian militants.
"Ehud is a smart guy, sly, ambitious, untiring in reaching the goals he sets himself, experienced and practical," Yossi Sarid, a prominent former member of parliament, wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "Ostensibly he has what it takes to be prime minister, but will it be enough?"
Measured against Sharon, Olmert at first glance might appear to be his opposite. Sharon, 77, a physically imposing former general, carefully cultivated his image as the nation's grandfather, reluctantly leaving the peace of his cow pastures in the Negev to serve his country in a time of need.
In contrast, Olmert is a career politician, short on military experience compared with many Israeli prime ministers but studied in the cut and thrust of politics. He has been notably abrupt, even measured by the forgiving standards of Israel. A tall, wiry long-distance runner, Olmert appears as a sophisticated urbanite, a child of education and privilege who would be as at home in New York or London as in Jerusalem.
Beyond appearances, however, Sharon and Olmert share a common political journey. Both men drifted from their roots in the hard-line political right to Israel's political center, abandoning their vision of a Greater Israel that would include Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
It was Olmert who first went public in December 2003 with the idea of evacuating the Gaza Strip, drawing howls of protest from Israel's far right. Olmert defended the proposed withdrawal as the only way for Israel to remain democratic and Jewish in the face of the growing Arab population in the Palestinian territories.
"I was the one that pushed this program of disengagement. I was the first to spell it out. I was the one that actually made the first move, long before anyone else, including, by the way, Prime Minister Sharon," Olmert said during a news conference in April.
Olmert has said that he would support further withdrawals from Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
"The strategy is not restricted necessarily only to the Gaza district. The strategy is comprehensive, and it will relate to all of the territories," Olmert said at a forum in Jerusalem in February 2004. "Disengagement will have to take place equally in the West Bank."
Some political analysts say Olmert's political views matured as he came to understand the difficulties of holding on to a place like Gaza.
"Ehud has undergone a certain process of readjusting his political views in the last several years, and I think today more than anyone else he is the leader of the Israeli political center," Carmon said. "I think one of the major things that signifies Ehud Olmert is his pragmatism. He never was an ideologue. He joins those leaders of the Zionist movement since its inception who knew to adjust to the realities."
But Olmert's critics describe him as an opportunist, shifting with the mood of the Israeli public away from support for the settlements.
"I think the public led the change and they followed. Sharon and Olmert were able to internalize the change and make a leap of faith that they were really with us," said Anat Hoffman, who served as a Jerusalem council member when Olmert was mayor.
Olmert was born in Binyamina, Israel, in 1945, the son of Bella and Mordechai Olmert, who emigrated from Russia by way of China. Olmert's father was a leader of the Irgun, one of the pre-independence underground armies; he later served in Israel's parliament.
Olmert served as an infantry officer and then as military correspondent for an army journal before attending Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned a law degree.
At 28, Olmert was elected to parliament. His initial service as a government minister was from 1988 to 1992. In 1993, he ran for mayor of Jerusalem, unseating Teddy Kollek, who had held the office since 1965.
As mayor, Olmert often courted controversy, encouraging the opening in 1996 of an archaeological tunnel along the edge of the Temple Mount - where the Jewish Temple once stood and which is now the site of two of Islam's holiest shrines - sparking deadly clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers; and demolishing houses constructed illegally by Palestinians.
Hoffman said she learned quickly on Jerusalem's council that Olmert demanded loyalty above all else.
"Anyone who finds themselves in opposition to Olmert will be isolated and wounded," she said.
Hoffman is quick to praise Olmert for his abilities as a leader, yet remains disappointed with the lack of improvements for the city during his 10 years as mayor. She criticizes him as using the post as a steppingstone to higher office. Nonetheless, he continues to win support from across Israel's political spectrum, including a strong endorsement from former Labor Party Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
"Ehud Olmert is a worthy replacement for Ariel Sharon," Barak told British Sky news recently. "He doesn't have the aura of a warrior, but ... he's a very shrewd person. ... He has a lot of experience, and he's held a lot of ministerial portfolios."
As mayor and a Cabinet minister, he was often host to dignitaries from the United States. At a dinner meeting last January with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, he joked about the troubles of being a big-city mayor and talked of Israel's eventual withdrawal from Gaza, a plan that at the time few other than Olmert and his patron, Sharon, seemed determined to carry out.