March 30, 2006

Election Decides Israel's Future

Print More

Despite its narrower-than-expected margin of victory, Israel’s Kadima Party shocked no one by winning Israel’s election Tuesday, having dominated the polls for months.

Kadima, which means “forward” in Hebrew, emerged with a plurality of 28 seats in Israel’s 120-member Knesset even as its founder, 78-year-old Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, lay comatose in a Jerusalem hospital. Sharon suffered a major stroke on Jan. 4, only weeks after forming the centrist party with moderates from his own right-wing Likud Party and the left-wing Labor Party.

Following the August implementation of Sharon’s plan to withdraw Jewish settlers and troops from the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, this election was widely considered a referendum on the future of the West Bank, which Israel has also controlled since capturing it in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s successor and Kadima’s leader, has promised to define Israel’s permanent borders by 2010 with a stable Jewish majority -unilaterally, if necessary – by removing Jewish settlements from most of the Palestinian-populated West Bank. Right-wing forces have pledged to fight him tooth and nail.

The odds of an Israeli pullout improved dramatically with the strong second-place finish of the pro-withdrawal Labor Party (20 seats) and the disappointing showings of the hard-line Likud (11 seats, down from 40 under Sharon) and the far-right National Union/National Religious Party coalition (9 seats). With the support of Labor and a few smaller parties, Olmert should be able to muster a stable Knesset majority to support relocating Israelis living in isolated West Bank enclaves to Israel and the adjacent settlement blocs Olmert hopes to annex.

The name of the new plan, “Convergence”- convergence on Israel’s newly shrunken borders, that is – is ironic in that popular support for it and the Kadima Party is the result of another “convergence”- a political one between left and right in Israel.

For years, Israeli political discourse on the Palestinian question was polarized between the extremes of Likud, which advocated keeping the West Bank and Gaza at any cost, and Labor, which supported giving most of the land back as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

In the aftermath of the September 2000 collapse of the peace process and the subsequent wave of Palestinian terrorism, majorities in each of the two camps reached separate conclusions that united them.

Many Likudniks realized that ruling over another people was untenable, especially given demographic concerns that Palestinians, with their higher birthrate, would overtake Jews as the largest population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and make Israel a de-facto clone of Apartheid-era South Africa.

At the same time, many Laborites, while continuing to support territorial concessions, became skeptical of the intentions of Yassir Arafat and the Palestinian leadership and realized that Israel could not wait forever for a peace partner.

The new Israeli consensus was that Israel would need to separate itself from the Palestinian population, redrawing its borders to grant the Palestinians statehood and Israel a stable Jewish majority. The country would seek to do so by reaching a bilateral agreement with the Palestinians, but would resort to unilateral measures in the likely absence of a responsible Palestinian leadership. The recent Palestinian election victory of Hamas, which opposes Israel’s existence altogether, has only strengthened these unilateralist convictions.

The formerly hard-line Sharon began adhering to this moderate path by accepting the internationally-sponsored Road Map, which called for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and then by implementing a withdrawal from Gaza – and some of the West Bank – when that process stalled.

More importantly, he began the construction of a fence between Israel and the West Bank, which has drastically limited the ability of Palestinian suicide bombers to infiltrate Israel, and is expected to delineate the future border between Israel and Palestine.

Sharon’s moderation caused an internal revolt within his Likud Party, and after elections were announced in November, he decided he would be better off running on his own centrist ticket than being held hostage to the Likud “rebels” who had made his life a living hell in the run-up to the withdrawal.

He brought with him prominent members of his own party, including Israel’s current foreign and defense ministers, Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz, and veterans of the Labor Party, including 82-year-old former Prime Minister and longtime friend Shimon Peres.

Through all this, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was his right-hand man, a sidekick of sorts.

This writer had the opportunity to meet Olmert in Jerusalem this summer and to ask him questions about remarks he had made to the Jerusalem Post at the time about the Gaza pullout being a precursor to a larger withdrawal from most of the West Bank.

He pooh-poohed the comments, insisting that the Post had taken them out of context, but did not deny their content.

“Look,” he said to me. “I don’t want Israel to be South Africa. We don’t believe in Apartheid here. We simply have to separate from the Palestinians so that we can control our own destinies.”

Olmert had been castigated for the comments by Sharon, who insisted then and until his stroke that he would carry out no more unilateral withdrawals.

This was clearly neither the position of Olmert nor most of the politicians who followed Sharon to Kadima. Now that Olmert is in charge, he is free to follow his own instincts.

There are only two problems that will make Olmert’s withdrawal from the West Bank far more difficult than Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza.

Ehud Olmert is not Ariel Sharon. And the West Bank is not Gaza.

Sharon, as a former champion of the settler movement and a career general who fought in and helped win all of Israel’s wars, was perhaps the only Israeli leader who could have broken the taboo of withdrawing from territory, in the same way that the staunchly anti-communist Richard Nixon was probably the only American leader who could have normalized relations with communist China.

Sharon’s two election landslides – and the third one he was projected to win before his stroke-testified that Israelis trusted him to make the decisions necessary for a secure Israel and the compromises required for a peaceful future. They were also enamored by the jovial 77-year-old Santa Claus figure, who had risen to mythic status over his five years as Prime Minister for defeating the tide of terror that had paralyzed Israel.

Ehud Olmert, on the other hand, is a career politician, who was elected to the Knesset at the age of 28, a record at the time, and served two terms in the 90s as mayor of Jerusalem. In a state where most male citizens serve three years in the army, Olmert’s only military experience is an Al Gore-esque stint as a correspondent for a military journal. While not loathed, he is widely regarded as arrogant and soporific – also somewhat like Gore, if one compares the more charming Sharon to Bill Clinton.

With regard to the West Bank in comparison to the Gaza Strip, there are several facts to keep in mind. It is dozens of times greater in area and much closer to Israeli population centers, which could find themselves vulnerable to Qassam attacks of the kind southern Israeli towns are experiencing daily from the now-Palestinian controlled Gaza Strip.

Additionally, the area Olmert intends to evacuate – the West Bank, minus the settlement blocs – is home to some 75,000 Jewish settlers, ten times as many as lived in Gaza, many of whom believe they are fulfilling a Biblical promise by settling in historical parts of the Land of Israel. They will not evacuate willingly.

The Gaza disengagement was contentious and costly enough. Olmert will have to consolidate a healthy popular majority in support of his plan and may have to implement it in stages.

One way Olmert can improve domestic support for a withdrawal is by rallying international support, given that Israelis concern themselves more than any other people about what the world thinks of them. One of Sharon’s greatest selling points for his Disengagement Plan was that Israel would garner badly needed diplomatic capital and public-relations benefits from a withdrawal.

If world leaders do not back up Olmert, Israelis will wonder what they stand to gain from giving up the West Bank other than the moral relief of no longer occupying another people and the concomitant anxiety over rockets being fired into Tel Aviv from Palestinian cities only miles away.

Of course, there is one rocket even more troubling than a Qassam from the West Bank: one carrying a nuclear device from Iran.

While Ariel Sharon dreams peacefully on the verge of his big sleep, Ehud Olmert may stay up wondering why he wanted Sharon’s job in the first place.

Archived article by Ben Birnbaum
Sun Senior Writer