Unlike Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who hated to make decisions and covered his diplomatic policy plans in a fog of ambiguity, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has openly presented his views on the future borders. Two years ago he had already spoken about a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank to a demographic line that would maintain a ratio of 80:20 between Jews and Arabs inside Israel, and about an exit from the outermost Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
Olmert said that Israel must determine its own fate and not wait for a Palestinian partner; otherwise it would find itself isolated internationally and in distress vis-a-vis an Arab majority between the Jordan and the sea. As we have not heard any change in his opinions, it is possible to predict that Olmert will try to advance this plan if he wins the elections. It enjoys support at the top level of Kadima, and in the absence of Sharon, who said "there will not be a second disengagement," the leadership barrier that had held it up has been removed.
There will be three obstacles in Olmert's way. First he has to win the elections. If he is elected, he will have to win over the defense establishment, from which expressions of regret about the complete withdrawal from Gaza have been heard (Avi Dichter, Kadima's new security master mind, has explicitly warned against another unilateral withdrawal). Olmert lacks his predecessor's military authority, and he will need the best of his political abilities to put together a coalition in uniform that will support him. Such support is necessary, because soldiers and police are the ones who will have to evacuate the West Bank settlers. The third challenge will be putting together suitable international recompense and convincing the American administration that a second disengagement will not undermine the stability of the region.
All of these difficulties share one factor: the chaos that is spreading in the Palestinian Authority. Even if Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is boasting of his misery in order to postpone the elections, and to altogether evade responsibility, it is hard to imagine him suddenly giving himself a good shake and taking charge. Israel will have to take into account that beyond the fence there is a vacuum, at least in the short and medium range.
The Palestinian anarchy will help Likud Candidate MK Benjamin Netanyahu. The Likud campaign ads will undoubtedly show Olmert talking about withdrawal on the backdrop of shots of rioting Palestinians, accompanied by the question of whether this is what voters want just outside Kfar Saba. The anarchy will justify the opponents of the withdrawal in the security establishment, who will warn against putting the mountain ridge into Palestinian hands. And in Washington, too, there are likely to be questions as to whether it is right to pull out and leave a "Hamastan" in the West Bank that would also threaten Jordan. The easy solution would be to ask for a time out, to say that Israel is recovering from the double trauma of the exit from Gaza and the loss of Sharon. This will doubly "Denver boot" Israel in the continuation of the occupation and the continued life in the settlements. The more daring and riskier solution would be to announce a withdrawal, to get better guarantees from America for completing the fence, to leave the settlement blocs in place and to deny the right of return, to evacuate the settlers and leave. The window of opportunity for doing this is closing with Sharon's departure.
But there is a third way, which Israel has not yet tried: to demand of the international community that it see to the territories that are evacuated. Like in Yugoslavia, Haiti or East Timor. If the Palestinians are incapable of seeing to their own affairs, and this seems to be the situation, Israel must not fall into a trap in the West Bank. If the world wants it to withdraw and end the occupation, it should take upon itself some of the responsibility and station policing forces in the West Bank.
This will not be easy. After the embroilment in Iraq, there are no volunteers to deploy in the Middle East. Israel, too, will need to weave a complicated understanding that the settlement blocs and the Old City of Jerusalem remain in its hands in the format of a border dispute, until a partner for negotiations arises. But without a strong international component, Olmert will find it difficult to carry out the withdrawal that in his opinion is essential for saving Israel.
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