Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Olmert's uphill struggle

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By Amotz Asa-El

Olmert: difficult choices

During four months as acting Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert cleverly avoided occupying his idolised predecessor’s office, working instead from his previous location in the Trade and Industry Ministry, lest he seem to be wresting prematurely Israel’s political sanctum of sanctums.

In May, after having won an election, assembled a coalition and passed his first budget, and with his grip on power finally firm, Israel’s twelfth Prime Minister has set out energetically to deliver the West Bank redeployment plan which was the centerpiece of his election campaign. Soon enough, however, he got a dose of reality that now appears to have made him reconsider parts of his ambitious scheme, at least tactically.

THE PLAN

Olmert’s plan, to leave 90 percent of the West Bank, redraw the border close to the Green Line and along the anti-terror fence, and relocate some 70,000 settlers in three blocs just to the east of Israel’s original, pre-’67 border, embodied in its principles the new Israeli consensus. It was painstakingly built by his predecessor by evacuating the Gaza Strip on the one hand, and building the fence on the other. According to that new consensus, the two rival ideas that dominated Israel’s political discourse since 1967, namely the Right’s "Greater Israel" and the Left’s "Land-for-Peace", have been empirically tested, each in its turn, and failed: Ariel Sharon’s original settlement drive culminated in the Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s, and the Oslo vision was confounded by this decade’s violence.

Eventually, most Israelis concluded that both schools of thought had offered them utopias rather than viable political plans. Gradually, people on both parts of the post-’67 political divide gravitated to a new pragmatism, one that despaired of obtaining full peace in this generation, and at the same time sought to reduce to a minimum daily friction with the Palestinians. That is how the massively popular Gaza pullout and the manifestly effective anti-terror fence emerged. That is also how Olmert’s plan, which is the logical extension of those policies, came into being, and initially won broad support in the political mainstream.

The Israeli voters’ verdict in the March election may have been ambiguous on such issues as educational reform, social spending, or financial deregulation, but there is no arguing that the parties still championing peace negotiations with the PA won between them less than 30 percent of the electorate, and that includes Labor - where many had also become PA sceptics, despite their Party’s platform.

Still, regional, diplomatic and domestic circumstances have changed, and made Olmert’s situation even more complex than it already was back when he first unveiled what he called "the convergence plan."

The first setback to Olmert’s unilateralist vision came in January, when Hamas won by a landslide the Palestinian legislative election.

Back when Sharon left Gaza, the Palestinians were led by Mahmoud Abbas, who was seen in Israel, despite his tough stances, as a reliable and worthy leader, one whose presence in a newly relinquished Gaza would promote a constructionist atmosphere. Under his leadership, it was hoped, foreign investors would be welcome, and local industry, farming and tourism would gradually create jobs, mobility, wealth and stability. Had that transpired, Gaza would have been peaceful, and served as a model for a West Bank pullout that could later breed at least a normalisation of sorts with Israel. Yet what happened in reality was Hamas’ takeover, which was soon followed by virulently anti-Israeli rhetoric and incessant rocket attacks on the cities of Sderot and Ashkelon as well as a good dozen smaller, neighbouring communities.

It was against this backdrop that Washington and Brussels began prodding Olmert to talk to Abbas, formally because he is the elected Palestinian President, but practically because they saw in him the only viable engine for a reversal of the Islamist takeover of the Palestinian cause.

Olmert disagreed.

Like most Israelis, he contended that talking to Abbas would be an exercise in futility, since he lacked clout and refused to fight terror. Abbas’ ongoing effort has been to accommodate rather than confront Hamas, both before and since its landslide victory in January’s legislative elections. The show of weakness — as Olmert sees it — began with Abbas’ failure to deliver on his promises to disarm all private militias, later evolved into an attempt to dialogue with, rather than discipline, Hamas, and now reappears as an initiative to hold a referendum over an ambiguous document written by terrorists doing time in Israeli jails.

While arguably implying a de facto acquiescence with Israel’s existence in its pre-’67 borders, the document is clearly a non-starter for most Israelis, as it demands the insertion of millions of displaced Palestinians and their descendants into Israel-proper, and at the same time fails to unequivocally recognise Israel and de-legitimise terror. Even so, the referendum idea, like the Prisoners’ Document itself, has already been flatly rejected by the Hamas leadership, and consequently even by its jailed followers who had been among its signatories.

From Olmert’s viewpoint, this is merely more proof that Israel has no viable interlocutor among the Palestinians, and it must therefore do by itself what it thinks is good for its future. This was essentially the message he carried to the leaders of the US, Egypt, Jordan, Britain and France during six weeks of frequent travel that began April 23, a mere three weeks after he was sworn in as Prime Minister.

In Washington, where he was clearly elated — as anyone would be — to have addressed Congress amid repeated ovations, Olmert heard President Bush compliment his courage but stop short of unequivocally adopting Olmert’s plan. In Sharm el-Sheikh, Olmert heard Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s concerns about a unilateral retreat potentially empowering fundamentalism, and in Amman he heard King Abdullah of Jordan bluntly reject the unilateralist vision. By the time he got to 10 Downing Street and the Elysee Palace in early June, Olmert already voluntarily avoided sharing with Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac his previously ubiquitous phraseology of "drawing Israel’s permanent borders by ourselves," the ticket on which he ran, and which became his main political banner.

The common denominator among these leaders is a flat refusal to even implicitly accept an Israeli annexation of trans-Green Line areas, as long as there is no Palestinian agreement to such measures. The way America and Europe see it, even a relatively fruitless dialogue between Israel and Palestinian moderates is better than Israeli measures that are taken unilaterally, even if those include a retreat almost as massive as the one they had been prodding Israel to make for the past four decades.

For Olmert, this collective cold shoulder came coupled with growing scepticism at home concerning the convergence plan.

First, well within Olmert’s coalition there is Shas, which remains reserved concerning the plan, and has obtained from Olmert a clause in their coalition agreement that exempts the ultra-Orthodox party from all other coalition partners’ duty to support a West Bank retreat, should one transpire.

Then there are sceptics within Olmert’s own Kadima Party. An Israel Radio report cited "a very senior cabinet minister from Kadima" as having said in closed circles that Olmert’s plan is impractical. It could have been made by the hawkish former Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, but also by Deputy Premier Shimon Peres, who remains unreconstructed in his longstanding insistence that agreements with the Palestinian Authority are both desirable and feasible.

Even more ominously for Olmert, the outgoing head of the National Security Council, General Giora Eiland, a widely respected and impartial professional, shocked the political system with a well-publicised criticism of the Olmert plan in particular and the decision-making process that preceded the unilateralist vision’s adoption in general. To top it all, a Haaretz poll released just when Olmert was meeting King Abdullah, indicated that 56 percent of the Israeli public is opposed to the Prime Minister’s convergence plan.

As put by the influential Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit, whose support for the Gaza pullout was enthusiastic, Olmert’s plan is disagreeable also to Israelis like himself because it will hand assets, free of charge, to a Palestinian leadership that is opposed to Israel’s very existence, and in fact place Tel Aviv and Jerusalem well within its shooting range.

Olmert knows all this, but seems unperturbed — driven by longer-term, demographic considerations that favour an Israel that is smaller, and possibly even more beleaguered from without, but at the same time one that is far more harmonious and manageable from within. Another consideration underpinning his vision, and an apparent inheritance from Sharon, is the desire to swiftly end the territorial debate that, in the aftermath of the Six Day War, has split Israeli society down the middle for the better part of two generations. That debate — Israelis from both the Land-for-Peace and Greater Israel camps agree — has been politically futile and socially fatal.

This rationale, coupled with Olmert’s conviction that negotiating with the Palestinians is a waste of time, is likely to continue to determine his premiership. However, the global and local complexities of which he now has had a closer look will soon produce a meeting between him and Abbas after all — if for no other reason then simply for the sake of allowing him to tell people like George Bush, Tony Blair and Shimon Peres that he tried. Then, once he fails to make progress that way, Olmert will attempt to proceed his own way.

Amotz Asa-El is an Israeli journalist who writes the "Middle Israel" column for the Jerusalem Post.

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