In a series of interviews in the foreign press, the most recent and most focused of which appeared in last weekend's Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister-designate Ehud Olmert firmed up his commitment to the convergence plan. In contrast to Ariel Sharon, whose program to disengage from the Gaza Strip was met initially with disbelief due to his general lack of credibility, Olmert does not carry that big of an albatross around his neck. He may be a rather foxy politicians and also a certified cynic, but his skin is thinner than that of his predecessor. And so, when he repeatedly declares his intention to evacuate dozens of Israeli communities from the West Bank within a year and a half, he should be taken seriously.
However, as in Yehuda Halevy's "The Kuzari," the king's intentions are desirable, but what of his actions? In order to implement his massive evacuation operation, Olmert must make it an urgent priority. The test of his seriousness will come immediately after the formation of the government: Will he make the necessary organizational changes, and will he change the priorities in the state budget in order to provide for the withdrawal?
More importantly, the parties involved in the coalition negotiations must pay attention now to the practical significance of the convergence plan and its budgetary, organizational and political implications because it will require a reapportioning of resources and perhaps also of ministerial authority.
When we recall the difficult situation of the 7,000 Gush Katif evacuees, we must not be complacent about the plan to uproot some 70,000 individuals from the West Bank. Despite extensive preparations, on the planning level, by the National Security Council, the rehabilitation and reabsorption of the Gaza Strip evacuees has been a failure: About 70 percent of breadwinners have not found new employment, and the housing solutions that were offered failed the reality check, with the evacuees taking advantage of less than 10 percent of the rental apartments made available to them by the state, while 40 percent of the families remained in hotels long beyond the allotted time. The municipal and education services intended for the evacuees were also insufficient.
In retrospect, the Disengagement Administration (Sela) pointed to a series of objective circumstances that made it difficult for it to do its job effectively; but this is the nature of the beast: Such a complex and charged operation incorporates innumerable problems and difficulties that must be anticipated and properly provided for. If the state was unable to properly absorb the Gaza Strip evacuees, how will it meet a challenge that is 10 times greater?
Anyone who seriously plans to move 70,000 people from one place to another within 18 months must begin preparing immediately. The necessary budgetary resources (nearly NIS 100 billion) must be located. The right absorption method must be selected; either the state makes the arrangements, or the evacuees are given compensation and the initiative is placed in their hands. An infrastructure must be established to create alternative employment, and the most efficient administrative structure to implement the plan must be selected.
First of all, Olmert must decide that the convergence will be to sites within the Green Line and not to the settlement blocs, and must create an action plan for absorbing the evacuees on this basis. At the same time, he must launch an operation to encourage settlers to voluntarily return to the pre-1967 borders. These steps will prove that he is serious about handing back most of the West Bank.
These measures are dictated not only by simple logic (why increase the settlement blocs that are already an obstacle to reaching an agreement with the Palestinians), but also by reality: According to the commitments made by the Sharon government to the U.S. administration in April 2004, settlement expansion is to be restricted to the current "construction lines." The demarcation of these lines was not completed, but the possibilities for expansion within these boundaries are very limited. In any event, President George Bush is known for rejecting settlement expansion, and ensuring harmony with Bush is a major priority for the prime minister-designate.
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