Israel Update for March 2006

David Dolan
David Dolan

As Israeli voters made final preparations for the March 28th national parliamentary elections, the politician widely expected to head the next government-Ehud Olmert-whipped up a political dust storm by revealing plans to carry out further unilateral withdrawals from Israel's biblical heartland. Just days before the national ballot, the leader of one of the centrist parties widely expected to join his new government strongly denounced the plan, raising doubts about Olmert's ability to stitch together a viable coalition government in April.

During most of March, Olmert's new centrist Kadima party continued to slip in the opinion polls, although the slide was temporarily halted mid-month when Israeli security forces dramatically burst into a Jericho jail to capture Palestinians suspected of assassinating the Israeli tourism minister in 2001. This came as the Palestinian Hamas movement unveiled its new government, composed of some of the most extreme members of the radical Islamic group.

In several newspapers interviews, Olmert outlined plans to tear down dozens of unnamed "isolated settlements" in Judea and Samaria in the coming years while holding on to the major settlement blocks around Jerusalem and northeast of Tel Aviv. He vowed to work out the withdrawal details in advance with tens of thousands of Israeli Jews slated for evacuation. At the same time, he pledged to go forward with disputed blueprints, on the drawing board for some years, to construct several thousand new Jewish homes in open land between Jerusalem and the largest disputed community, Ma'ale Adumim.

Olmert said the settlement uprootings would be followed by the establishment of Israel's "permanent borders" sometime before the next national elections are scheduled to be held in late 2010. How exactly this supine goal would be accomplished, and how Israel would successfully persuade the international community, let alone the Arab states, to accept such unprecedented unilateral action was not spelled out.

The Kadima party leader said his ultimate aim was to "completely separate from the majority of the Palestinian population and preserve a large and stable Jewish majority in Israel." But he resisted attempts by interviewers from two newspapers to get him to specify exactly where he would draw the so-called "final borders," saying such "high resolution" should be left until after he puts together Israel's next coalition government. "I have set out a direction, which is more than any of the other candidates have done," he told the Jerusalem Post. Olmert insisted that world leaders would accept such far reaching Israeli government action because of the "good will" engendered by last year's Gaza/northern Samaria pullouts-a contention that was scoffed at by most of his political opponents.

Dividing The Land

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas joined Hamas, neighboring Arab states and many others in roundly condemning Olmert's intention to unilaterally draw up Israel's permanent borders in the rolling hills of Judea and Samaria in the coming years. In response to the sharp rebukes, Kadima politicians scrambled to bolster Olmert's interview statement that he would "wait awhile" to give the new Hamas government time to reverse its declared intention to bury the PA's Oslo and Road Map peace process commitments, and to end all terrorist assaults upon Israeli Jews and annul the Hamas charter goal of wiping Israel from the world map. Kadima officials said the party was willing to give Hamas up to one full year to reverse its extremist stands. However they added that since Olmert's demands would surely go unfulfilled, the announced settlement uprootings and other unilateral actions should be anticipated by Israeli voters.

In his pre-election media interviews, Olmert also sought to deal with what Kadima campaign strategists acknowledged was his greatest weakness: his lack of personal military experience. He said it was his "tough" government policies after Ariel Sharon suffered his massive stroke in early January that had persuaded Hamas to continue a terrorism "time out" declared in early 2005, since the militant movement was witnessing how high a price the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad group was paying for staying on the terrorist warpath.

When the Jerusalem Post interviewer pointed out that pre-Gaza withdrawal promises by both Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to use massive force to quell any post-pullout rocket attacks had hardly been fulfilled, Olmert countered that there is "no single slam, bam, thank you ma'am" approach that would stifle such attacks. He maintained that only sustained low level punches would ultimately do the job-a position that is generally supported by Israeli military leaders, but disputed by many security experts and right wing politicians.

No You Won't!!

Given his front runner status, it was not surprising that the Acting Premier's withdrawal intentions were stomped upon by nearly all other Israeli Jewish and Arab political parties. Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party was the most vociferous in its denunciations; with party campaign spokesman and Knesset member Gilad Erdan stating that "Olmert's comments demonstrate once again just how irresponsible he is for being willing to give more land to Hamas." When nightly pre-election campaign advertisements began airing on Israel's three national television stations, the Likud ads focused on the harrowing Hamas threat, quoting one of the radical group's leaders as welcoming Olmert's intention to implement additional land evacuations since this would bolster the Muslim holy war against Israel. Other right wing parties predicted that the intended withdrawals would end with a barrage of Palestinian rocket attacks upon Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion airport.

Left wing criticism of Olmert's remarks centered on the apparent fact that the international community will never accept Israel's unilateral declaration of its final borders, especially if they included significant portions of "occupied" territory captured from Jordanian forces in the 1967 Six Day war. Anything other than a mutually negotiated peace accord would never stand the test of time, they maintained. Kadima spokesmen shot back that Israel might have to wait forever for a trustworthy peace partner to come along, and therefore Olmert's plan to simply declare final borders and move the controversial security barrier to them was the only viable game in town, at least for the foreseeable future.

In the wake of Olmert's interviews, opinion polls showed that Kadima had slipped from its early January lead of some 43 to 44 Knesset seats to just 34-35 seats. Noting that the Likud party in particular was benefiting from Kadima's decline, Kadima campaign ads then began to personally attack former PM Netanyahu, reminding voters that his own father had once expressed doubts over his son's credentials to become Israel's premier. Likud ads quickly countered by noting that Olmert had been effectively endorsed by PA leader Abbas, who told reporters that, "The Palestinians can work with him in an effective way." However some strategists pointed out that many right wing voters would probably join most leftist Israelis in viewing such a comment from Abbas as a positive thing, given the sudden and frightening rise of Hamas to power.

Army To The Rescue?