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His Excellency Ehud Olmert

November 11, 2013

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As part of the Global Leaders conversation series, former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert delivered remarks at NYU Washington, DC on November 11, 2013.

While at NYU Washington, DC, Mr. Olmert delivered remarks on the on-going Israeli-Palestinian piece talks, reflected on his tenure as Prime Minister, and talked broadly about regional issues, including the unrest in Syria and Egypt.

Mr. Olmert took time to answer audience questions, discussed his connection to New York University, and briefly met with NYU Washington, DC students.


Ehud Olmert

His Excellency Ehud Olmert

With his election to Prime Minister, Olmert resolved to change the Government’s list of priorities. Reforms in education, the investment in children until the age of six, the actions to reduce the gaps and dealing with the minority sector all received an immediate expression in the guidelines of the new government.

Among the most remarkable achievements of the Government headed by Olmert is the establishment of Israel’s deterrence force when compared with its status on the eve of the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War. The distancing of Hizbullah from Israel’s border and the heavy cost of the war on this terrorist organization, and indeed on Lebanon as a whole, today contribute to the manner in which Israel is perceived among its neighbors.

Ehud Olmert was born on September 30, 1945, in the Shoni Fortress on the slopes of the Carmel, where his parents lived along with other members of the Betar Movement and Etzel. From there, they moved to the nearby community of Nahalat Jabotinsky, which in time was appended to Binyamina. His parents, Bella and Mordechai Olmert, were active in the Betar movement, and for many years, his father served as the head of the settlement movement of the Herut Party and Member of Knesset for the party.

In November 1963, after completing his studies, he began his military service in the Golani Brigade. After old wounds in his hands and feet, which had occurred prior to his military service, were discovered, he was temporarily relieved of duty. During this period, for one year he was a teacher and educator at the regional school in Amikim, where students from the nearby communities of Givat Nili and Aviel also learned. He finally completed his military service in 1971 as a reporter for the IDF magazine, “Bamahane”, and in the early 1980’s completed an officers’ course while serving in the reserves.

In 1965, he began his studies in the psychology department of the Hebrew University, which he completed in 1968. During this period, he began his public activity, in the framework of the Herut Party student cell and as a student representative on the Party Committee. During the Herut conference, which took place in 1965, he dared call for the resignation of the Party head, Menachem Begin, and caused an uproar which led to Begin’s announcement of his resignation (which he later withdrew). Shortly thereafter, Olmert resigned along with other members of Herut, and was instrumental in the establishment of the “Free Center”. He was appointed secretary of the faction in the Knesset.

In 1970, he began his law studies at the Hebrew University, which he completed as a graduate of the Faculty three years later. Upon completion of his two years of internship, he was qualified as an attorney, a profession he practiced for a number of years, parallel to his public work.

Ahead of the elections for the 8th Knesset in 1973, the Likud Party was established, and Olmert was placed 36th on the list as a representative of the “Free Center”, and at the end of 1973, he was elected a Member of Knesset, and began his parliamentary career, which has, with the exception of one term, been continuous. In the 8th and 9th Knessets, he was a member of the Constitutional Committee, the Law and Justice Committee, the Financial Committee and the State Audit Committee.

Ahead of the elections for the 10th Knesset, he was appointed director of the informational headquarters for the Likud Party, which, with 48 mandates, celebrated its greatest success ever.

In the 10th and 11th Knessets, Olmert was a member of the Foreign and Security Affairs Committee for the first time, while also serving in the Knesset Committee.

At the end of 1988, when Yitzhak Shamir formed his third Government, Olmert was appointed Minister without Portfolio, charged with minority affairs. In June 1990, after serving as a decisive player in the coalition talks behind the scenes, he was appointed Minister of Health. Olmert chose to serve in the Ministry of Health because he believed that significant changes could be made there.

During his tenure as Minister of Health – which lasted two years – he acted to implement the recommendations of the State Investigatory Committee headed by Justice Shoshana Netanyahu, who examined the state of the health system. The Committee’s report constituted the basis for a general reform of the health system, formulated by a team of experts appointed by Minister Olmert, and which was headed by Prof. Mordechai Shani.

While serving as Minister of Health, the foundations for changing the Law of Governmental Health Insurance were established, the method of pricing medical services was changed and a new standard of advancing government hospitals as independent corporations was defined. The completion of all aspects of the reform was suspended when the Likud lost the elections in 1992, forcing Olmert to complete his term in the Ministry of Health.

In the end of 1992, despite the low odds predicted in his race against Mayor Teddy Kolleck, Olmert decided to submit his candidacy for mayor of Jerusalem. In the mayoral elections of 1993, Olmert was elected Mayor of Jerusalem.

During the decade in which Olmert served as mayor, Jerusalem became a city with the most advanced transportation infrastructure in the country. The scope of investments in this area – which totals billions of shekels – was several times larger in real terms when compared with the decades preceding it. Begin Highway, Highway 1 North, the Mount Scopus Tunnel Road and, of course, the laying of the foundations for the light rail¸ the flagship project of public transportation in Israel – all took shape during the years Olmert served in the capital.

In addition, investment in education, in all streams, which was defined as the most important on the list of priorities, was unprecedented, both in the Jewish and Arab sectors. Approximately 100 new schools were established during Olmert’s tenure as mayor, 18 in Arab neighborhoods. The school built in the Beit Hanina neighborhood, which numbers 55 classrooms, is though to be the largest of its kind in Israel.

During these years, the Har Homa neighborhood was built, the neighborhoods of Pisgat Zeev and Malha were expanded, and the industrial zone of Har Hotzvim, which became a center of hi-tech industry, was significantly expanded.

All these improvements, which changed the face of the city, were carried out without increasing the city’s deficit, and while achieving a significant increase in the amount of Government budgets allocated to the city and through funds raised by the New Jerusalem Fund, which was established at that same time.

As mayor, Olmert also had to deal with no fewer than 52 terror attacks, both by suicide bombers and shooters. Alongside his uncompromising decision to personally visit at the home of every family in Jerusalem who lost a loved one in a terrorist attack, he helped formulate the activities of the municipality’s emergency responses and patterns to deal with intensive terror in settled urban areas were determined.

Ahead of the elections for the 16th Knesset, Olmert served as head of the Likud election headquarters in 2003, and when Ariel Sharon assembled the 30th Government, Olmert was appointed Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor.

As Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor, he placed the subject of exports at the top of his list of priorities, and made real achievements in promoting cooperation in this field with many countries around the world. His policy was that the State of Israel has tremendous potential and must take advantage of it and provide impetus for export, which would change the face of Israel’s economy, increase employment and allow for an increase in State income.

Between 2003 and 2005, negotiations were conducted ahead of signing the first of its kind free trade agreement between the State of Israel and the Mercosur trade organization – in which Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay are members. The agreement was signed at the end of 2007. Trade agreements with NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the European Union were strengthened.

Today Israel is one of the only countries in the world with free trade agreements with the three largest trade centers in the world: NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), an agreement with the European Union and one with Mercosur. In addition, Olmert conducted negotiations with Egypt and the United States, and initiated the signing of a tri-partite trade agreement with these countries similar to the QIZ Agreement (Qualifying Industrial Zones) with Jordan. This agreement greatly strengthened the relations between Israel and Egypt, and has led to a tremendous increase in Egyptian exports to the United States, under the auspices of Israel’s free trade agreement with the US.

Proper treatment of the export issue from factories operating in the region of Judea and Samaria, which was put in jeopardy by the continuation of Israel’s free trade agreement with the European Unions, along with visits to countries such as India and China as the head of delegations comprised of businesspeople and industrialists, also contributed to the expansion of Israel’s trade routes.

At the beginning of 2006, near the end of Olmert’s tenure at the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, the scope of Israeli exports exceeded the scope of its imports for the first time.

In the field of employment, important advances were also made: the number of foreign workers was dramatically reduced and the employment services underwent an organizational revolution. The Office of Standards and Regulations, which operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, ushered in important changes in the field of Israeli standards and regulations, which are highly significant in the context of technologies and imports.

In August 2005, Olmert was appointed Minister of Finance, a position he filled for nine months. In the Ministry of Finance, he laid the foundations for a responsible economic policy, which guides the Government today as well: preserving the budget limits, continued growth, maintaining inflation targets and reducing the dimensions of unemployment.

On January 4, 2006, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was unable to continue fulfilling his duties, his authority was transferred to Olmert. Four months later, after the Kadima list, headed by Olmert, won the largest number of mandates in the elections for the 17th Knesset, he was sworn in as Prime Minister of Israel in the Knesset.

With his election to Prime Minister, Olmert resolved to change the Government’s list of priorities. Reforms in education, the investment in children until the age of six, the actions to reduce the gaps and dealing with the minority sector all received an immediate expression in the guidelines of the new government.

Among the most remarkable achievements of the Government headed by Olmert is the establishment of Israel’s deterrence force when compared with its status on the eve of the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War. The distancing of Hizbullah from Israel’s border and the heavy cost of the war on this terrorist organization, and indeed on Lebanon as a whole, today contribute to the manner in which Israel is perceived among its neighbors.

An additional achievement is the jumpstarting of the political process vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority, which earned broad international attention in the framework of the Annapolis Conference and with the placing of the core issues on the political agenda.

In 2007 – the first complete year of Olmert’s Government – was one of the best in the history of the country in a number of areas: the number of casualties from terror attacks was the lowest in the last decade; the number of people killed in traffic accidents showed a significant decrease; the number of employees in the economy was larger and the number of families defined as living in poverty decreased for the first time in years. Economic growth increased in an exceptional manner when compared with other Western nations, and there was an unprecedented surplus of billions of shekels in the balance of payments.

Ehud Olmert is married to Aliza, an artist who paints and writes for the cinema and the theater, who dedicates a considerable portion of her time to advancing issues related to children under the age of six and to the distress of refugees who arrive in Israel from various countries.

The Olmerts have four children and eight grandchildren. In his very few hours of leisure, the Prime Minister spends time with his family and watches sporting events on television. “Although I naturally do not have enough time, at least not as much as I would wish, to spend with my family and close friends, I have no doubt that the seriousness of my mission and the importance of the tasks which are placed before us justify any sacrifices”, the Prime Minister frequently says. “When I examine the accomplishments and survey our future objectives, I am certain that Israelis have many reasons for optimism and pride”.


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