With Sharon's sudden collapse from a massive stroke, a grim-faced Olmert took the reins of power Thursday, trying to convey continuity but acknowledging in a special Cabinet session that the nation is in a "serious situation."
"Arik is not only a prime minister and a leader, but also a close friend to us all," Olmert said, referring to Sharon by his nickname. "This is a difficult time and we will stand together."
Sharon's wide chair at the center of the long Cabinet table was left empty, a sign of the temporary nature of Olmert's new position.
If Sharon remains incapacitated, Olmert will be the acting prime minister until elections in March. Sharon was expected to lead his political party, Kadima, to victory but now the race is wide open, reports CBS News correspondent David Hawkins.
While the 60-year-old Olmert will be a top contender in the race for prime minister, he will likely never be as popular as his mentor, placing the future of Kadima in limbo.
Olmert was Sharon's strongest supporter as the prime minister withdrew Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in September. When other members of the hard-line Likud Party turned on Sharon because of the Gaza pullout, Olmert stood by the prime minister.
Olmert served as Sharon's point man, floating ideas before they became policy.
"Olmert can take credit for having sponsored disengagement before Sharon. He served as his vanguard in putting the plan to the public," said analyst Yossi Alpher.
Olmert was first elected at the age of 28 to parliament, serving as a lawmaker for seven terms, and holding several ministerial posts. In those years, Olmert was investigated several times for corruption, but was never convicted of wrongdoing.
Elected mayor of Jerusalem in 1993, Olmert held the post for 10 years, supporting Israeli moves to settle in Palestinian-dominated areas of the city. In 1996, he opened a tunnel along a disputed Jerusalem holy site, an act that sparked days of Israeli-Palestinians clashes in which 80 people were killed.