Now that Israeli leader Ehud Olmert has nailed together a ruling coalition and can start work on his signature policy plan, a pullout from much of the West Bank, he has this much in his favor: What's left of country's hard right can't claim he has no mandate for withdrawal. Consider that cause for one and a half cheers. For as currently designed, Olmert's plan seems designed to leave Israel with its own version of an endless Ulster problem.
Lack of a popular mandate was one of the right's central arguments against Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer. Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon had been elected as a supporter of the “Whole Land of Israel” -- meaning permanent Israeli control of the occupied territories. Rightists, including members of Sharon's own Likud party, unsuccessfully demanded a referendum before evacuating Israeli settlers from the Strip.
In the aftermath of the Gaza pullout, Sharon bolted the Likud to create the new Kadimah ticket. And Olmert, who inherited the party after Sharon's massive stroke, ran on a platform of what's been called “convergence” in English -- better translated as “contraction,” or tightening the lines. Though a life-long rightist, Olmert accepted the left's argument that Israel can only remain a Jewish state by ending its rule over the Palestinians of the West Bank.
Almost obligingly, the rump Likud ran campaign ads declaring the March 28 election a referendum on “convergence.” It was another miscalculation by Likud candidate Benjamin Netanyahu, who won just 12 seats in the 120-member Knesset. That's a third of the Likud's previous strength; the other two-thirds went to Olmert. All together, Kadimah and parties to its left won 70 seats in parliament. If the right again demands a national vote on taking down settlements, expect Olmert to pull out his opponents' ads from the archive.
Olmert put together a coalition of four parties to gain a parliamentary majority, but may bring in two more. With today's Knesset vote of confidence, he became prime minister in his own right, and he has promised to move quickly on the withdrawal. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, he claimed he would carry out the plan within 18 months.
But Olmert is at best a recovering right-winger, and his plan for withdrawal carries the baggage of his past. It involves imposing a border on the Palestinians rather than negotiating one, and keeping a chunk of the West Bank under Israeli rule.
At first glance, the obstacle to negotiations is the Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority, which refuses to recognize Israel. But even if moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas manages to reassert control, don't expect real peace talks. Sharon and Olmert made no effort to negotiate with Abbas before Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January. In 2003, when Olmert first announced his backing for a pullout, he made clear that he did not expect agreement with the Palestinians, and that Israel would have to set borders on its own.
The Gaza pullout demonstrated the price of that approach. There was no peace agreement, and no orderly turnover of authority in the area Israel left. A negotiated pullout would have boosted Abbas's authority. Instead, Palestinian public opinion interpreted the withdrawal as a victory for Hamas's terror attacks.
But past diplomatic experience also shows that a negotiated agreement would place the border between Israel and independent Palestine very close to the Green Line, the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and Jordan.
Olmert rejects that possibility. He hasn't said exactly where he would put the line. But the best indication is the security barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank. Indeed, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Olmert's closest political ally, has said publicly that the barrier “will have implications” for the border.
So examine the barrier. According to the B'Tselem human rights group, the government's planned route places about 9 percent of the West Bank's area on the Israeli side. That land takes in about three-fourths of the settlers in the West Bank, whose total number now exceeds 250,000. But the same land is home to at least 30,000 Palestinians. Olmert has made no indication of what their status would be.
To put more settlers and fewer Palestinians on the Israeli side, the barrier route makes strange twists and loops. Long tendrils would stretch out from Israel to take in the settlements of Ariel and Kedumim -- and drastically reduce access between Palestinian towns in the northern West Bank and those to the south. Another finger stretches eastward from Jerusalem.
That route might reduce the short-term pain for Israel of evacuating settlements, but in the longer term it's lose-lose. If a Palestinian state arose in the fragmented West Bank, it would have a hard time providing government services or functioning economically. Meanwhile, without peace, the Israeli fingers would be difficult to defend.
Most basically, the continued occupation of part of the West Bank would encourage Palestinian groups to keep attacking Israel. In rough terms, think of those parts of the West Bank as Israel's Northern Ireland, a continual cause of conflict.
As a sign that the Israeli public is prepared to pull back, therefore, the election results were half a reason to cheer. For the other half of the applause, let's wait for a better plan for ending the occupation than Olmert is offering.
Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977.
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