The unilateral pullout is "unstoppable," says Ehud Olmert. Someone advised the prime minister to express himself with firm, strong statements, to say "I will do this (or that)." And yet, his utterances come out somewhat confused.
Olmert told Yoel Marcus on Sunday that the pullout in the West Bank was his only option, and he would do it in a unilateral move, contrary to the advice he received on his visits overseas. The next day a senior minister heard from him that he wished to negotiate with Abu Mazen.
In the Jewish Agency Assembly he repeated the formula that "we will explore every way" to negotiate with the Palestinians, and if that doesn't work, "Israel will seek other ways."
Unilateral or bilateral, Olmert has wasted half of his 100 days of grace on unnecessary trips around the world and on appearing at insignificant events, and has done very little to promote the pullout. Although evacuating settlements beyond the separation fence is his government's main goal, and Kadima's raison d'etre, Olmert has not held even one official debate on the pullout, its goals and the ways to implement it. Nor has he appointed anyone as project manager.
He had a few meetings with the Abramovitz committee, which Tzipi Livni set up "to map Israel's interests" in the pullout from the West Bank. The committee is nearing the end of its work, but is no substitute for detailed planning, encompassing government and security bureaucracy.
The excuse - that we must wait six months to negotiate with the Palestinians and only then prepare the unilateral move - is not convincing. The settlers' evacuation and resettlement must be planned now, regardless of whether or not there is a Palestinian partner. After all, Olmert means to evacuate them in any case.
The American administration gave the go-ahead to planning the pullout even before the elections and repeated its approval when Olmert visited Washington. But the prime minister is dawdling. His preelection promises to start a dialogue with the settlers and stop government investments beyond the Green Line have yet to be kept.
There is a price to pay for lost time: the deteriorating security caught Olmert before he managed any faits accomplis in the pullout process. The Qassam fire from the Gaza Strip and the kidnapping the soldier Gilad Shalit are weakening the public's support for pulling out of the West Bank, a move that would bring Hamas closer to Kfar Sava and Rosh Ha'ayin. The international objections to the unilateral pullout has already led to revising the plan. Instead of the "permanent border" he promised before the elections, Olmert is now talking about a "security border," or a temporary border that would be the basis for future negotiations.
The kidnapping crisis is not merely "a test for Abu Mazen," as Olmert put it, but a test for himself. The leadership he displays in dealing with the kidnappers and Qassam launchers will help him garner public support for the pullout or undermine it.
But this is not enough. Olmert must translate his resolute rhetoric into actions: preparing an "Evacuation Compensation Law" for the West Bank settlers; stanching the investments beyond the fence in the 2007 budget; holding talks with the Yesha Council; and even starting to evacuate settlements. He must give the public a description of the security situation on the day after the pullout. Will the army remain in a security buffer zone in the evacuated areas or leave altogether like it did in Gaza?
If this foot-dragging continues, people will suspect that all the pretty words on evacuation and withdrawal to a new border are lies, meant to gain Olmert time as prime minister and perpetuate Israel's hold on the West Bank. Is this the case, or is the pullout really "unstoppable," and all we need is patience?
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