"[Olmert] also saw what happened in South Africa in the 1990s," Avishai adds. "It's not that the Israeli and South African situations were alike, but he
felt that this path toward failed annexation would nevertheless isolate Israel diplomatically and internationally and that Jews in America would be among
those leading the charge."
Others place the origins of Olmert's conversion in the mid-to-late 1990s, when Israel was rocked by a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings. Over just two
months in 1996, for example, suicide attacks killed 45 Israelis in Jerusalem alone. The following year more than 20 died in attacks on the city. Then
Jerusalem's mayor, Olmert was often among the first to arrive on the scene, and saw the grisly results firsthand--putting the limits of ideology into stark
Around the same time, observers say, Olmert began to internalize what is often called Israel's "demographic problem." With their rapidly growing birthrate,
the idea goes, Palestinians under Israeli jurisdiction could soon outnumber Jews. If Israel does not see to it that the Palestinians control a viable state
of their own, the country risks losing either its Jewish or its democratic character--which is to say, risks abandoning its reason d'etre. That, says Roni
Milo, a former Likud minister who has served in government with Olmert, "would be a disaster for Israel." Milo says this recognition lies behind is own
move to the center, and that of another prominent Likudnik, Dan Meridor.
Against this broad backdrop, Olmert's pivot took its most concrete form in 2005 when, after rising through the party's ranks, he bolted Likud to form the
center-right Kadima party with Ariel Sharon. Coming from Olmert, the move was surprising; from Sharon, it was nothing short of a political earthquake. Some
say Olmert was central in nudging along Sharon's thinking as the two lions of the Likud ditched what had long been their political home to spearhead
Israel's historic Gaza pullout.
The withdrawal had enormous implications for Israel's politics and security. In leaving, Israel shed a population that is today nearing two million
Palestinians, but also may have contributed to the radicalization of the Sinai peninsula. For Olmert, the impacts were more personal. His wife, Aliza, has
said that until Olmert left Likud, she had never voted for him. A friend of Olmert's recently told me that Aliza, a respected artist, "was probably the
main force in moving him further left."
Later in 2005, Sharon suffered a massive stroke that has left him incapacitated. As his deputy, Olmert seemed the logical heir to the new party's throne.
The following year, he led Kadima to victory at the polls, succeeding Sharon as prime minister during what turned out to be a demanding period. In 2006,
Olmert oversaw the Second Lebanon War. The next year he reportedly ordered Israel's aerial attack on a secret Syrian nuclear facility. In late 2008, in
response to stepped-up rocket fire from Gaza, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against Hamas. Bucking international pressure to end the hostilities,
Israel eventually undertook a unilateral ceasefire, but not before more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis had died.