Israeli leader’s family has influenced his political ways

JERUSALEM – To understand why a lifelong hawk like Ehud Olmert could come to embody the moderate center of Israeli politics, look no further than his family.

There’s his wife, Aliza, a dove even before they married 35 years ago. And his son Shaul, who refused to serve the army’s rule over the Palestinians. And his daughter Dana, who is openly gay and even further left than others in the family.

It wasn’t just the household that shaped the man elected last week as Israel’s likely next prime minister. Many of the votes for Olmert’s Kadima party came from Israelis who, like him, had concluded that the right’s dream of ruling a “Greater Israel” including the West Bank and Gaza Strip would perpetuate the war with the Palestinians and eventually drown the Jewish state in an Arab majority.

But in his case, the 60-year-old Olmert says, his wife was a major factor.

“Only a dumb person can say that being in love with one person for 35 years, living with him, being married to him will not influence his point of view,” he said in a recent interview with Frontline, the PBS documentary show.

His wife and mother of his four children – a fifth is adopted – is a gray-haired, distinguished-looking woman with a shy manner, and is largely unknown to the Israeli public. A social worker and artist, she has crafted a career separate from her husband’s. She says she is hesitant to take on the role of prime minister’s wife – a position left vacant during the widowed Ariel Sharon’s five years in office.

She and the children are an eclectic, opinionated bunch, and Olmert, in his victory speech, acknowledged them all.

“Your patience, your wisdom, your ability to disagree with me frequently and your understanding in agreeing with me infrequently – all these gave me strength, enthusiasm, faith and hope,” he said.

They also helped him evolve politically from ideologue to pragmatist.

The four Olmert brothers grew up in a traditional nationalistic household that believed in a Greater Israel that would make no territorial concessions to the Arabs. Ehud Olmert trained as a lawyer but soon went into politics, becoming a hawkish, outspoken lawmaker and later a minister in the right-wing governments of his former Likud party.

In college, he met the woman who much later would become a part of his political transformation.

They knew they were ideologically apart, but it hardly mattered, Aliza Olmert told PBS.

“We just fell in love. As simple as that. A boy meets a girl, a girl meets a boy, and that’s the whole story. You don’t talk ideology (in) those very special moments.”

The children embraced their mother’s beliefs, but the family found a gentle balance.

“There is a complex, and I think fascinating dialogue between my children and me. There are a lot of disagreements and anger, but also a lot of mutual respect,” Olmert told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot.

Olmert’s nationalistic policies – especially during his contentious 10 years as mayor of Jerusalem – took their toll on relations with several leftist friends. But all the Olmerts say the differences have never harmed family harmony. If nothing else, they always backed the same soccer team, son Shaul says.

Shaul’s signature on a petition against soldiering in the West Bank and Gaza was a radical step, well beyond the national consensus that holds military service as a sacred national duty. But he said his father, while disagreeing with his views, wasn’t angry.

“He mainly felt guilty that I was put in the spotlight and in a situation that I didn’t want, just because I am his son.”

Olmert told PBS: “We really live in a very open environment in the family, where everyone is entitled to have his own position, and that’s fine with us. I never questioned their right to be wrong.”

But ultimately it was Olmert who changed his ways. Until recently, it was he who was isolated politically in his own home. On the eve of last Tuesday’s election, he said this was the first time his family might actually vote for him.

“I always admired the tolerance of my family. They tolerated my dissension for the family consensus,” he told PBS. “They never got rid of me in spite of my different positions.”

Moshe Amirav, a childhood friend, said Olmert’s shift to centrist politics showed an adaptability that would serve him well as a leader, facing the rise of the Islamic Hamas movement to power in the West Bank and Gaza.

“He has a very open approach,” Amirav said. “He can see things from the other side. If he can see things through the eyes of his wife, he can also see things through the eyes of Hamas.”