The toothpaste syndrome
It is not clear how many settlements Olmert intends to evacuate and from where; whether the Israel Defense Forces will withdraw completely from evacuated areas and if so - how will it protect Israel; what will be the future of the Jordan Valley; what did the prime minister mean when he spoke of the Jordan as the border of security and is Kiryat Arba part of the settlement bloc he seeks to preserve.
When it turned out that prime minister Ariel Sharon had presented the disengagement plan to the American administration, the heads of the defense establishment tore their hair out in frustration. The chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon and the head of the National Security Council Giora Eiland, were among those who argued that Sharon's initiative was like toothpaste that cannot be put back in the tube. They had reservations about the very idea, but as disciplined soldiers they accepted the implementation of the mission. Their arguments were over the way the prime minister carried out the move, presenting it as unilateral, with no diplomatic context and no price tag.
The Americans' first reaction to the idea of disengagement was cool: Washington wondered how it would dovetail with the road map and was insulted to have been presented with a fait accompli. Some verbal acrobatics and diplomatic bowing and scraping were needed to straighten things out and bring President George W. Bush around to support the initiative, and even to reward Israel for it (his letter of April 2004 in which he stated that it would be unrealistic to expect that the outcome of the final status negotiations would be a return to the borders of 1967).
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who leaves today on his first diplomatic mission to the U.S., is also presenting President Bush with an omelette that cannot be put back in the eggshell: He announced his convergence plan without coordination with the U.S. administration. He, too, gave it a unilateral character and did not put a price tag on it. He is looking after the fact to the White House for an ally and a patron to sponsor his initiative.
The new prime minister was hit with the first ricochets even before he took off: the French foreign minister made clear in no uncertain terms during his visit to Jerusalem last week that the Quartet will not stand for the Israeli intention to unilaterally define the permanent borders. The vanguard Olmert sent to Washington to lay the groundwork for his visit came back with a recommendation to lower expectations, and his bureau is briefing the media accordingly.
At first Olmert linked the separation fence to the idea of convergence, and defined its route as one that would fit the new design of the permanent borders. Last week, when he became aware of the reactions and objections internationally, he changed his wording and began to speak of convergence to "defensible borders." Haim Ramon uses the formula "sustainable borders."
These verbal zigzags are not coincidental: they evince confusion and diplomatic conduct of the "trial and error" ilk. They also reflect the status of the convergence plan: a primal idea with broad strokes but whose details, and even whose general components, have yet to coalesce. It is not clear how many settlements Olmert intends to evacuate and from where; whether the Israel Defense Forces will withdraw completely from evacuated areas and if so - how will it protect Israel; what will be the future of the Jordan Valley; what did the prime minister mean when he spoke of the Jordan as the border of security and is Kiryat Arba part of the settlement bloc he seeks to preserve. And there are dozens of complex issues regarding implementation from a domestic perspective (cost, rehabilitation of the evacuees, opposition of the settlers, involvement of the IDF, ensuring coalition stability, etc).
At present, convergence is more a guiding concept than headings of a clear plan of action. Other than an inter-ministerial committee that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni put together a few months ago, there has been no real preparation on the part of the new government for implementation. Practical steps in this direction are also not expected in its first month.
On the other hand, it is expected that Olmert would have formulated lucid objectives for his initiative, its main components and the means of achieving them, before he goes to the U.S. with a request to support it. His conduct gives the impression that he is still groping to find his way.