ANALYSIS / Lebanon War Diverted Olmert From Goal to Pull Out of West Bank

The premier concludes his term without realizing his vision of dividing the land with the Palestinians.

Sunday's cabinet meeting was the last under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is expected to step down in the coming days. At the session, Olmert returned to his term's exact point of departure. His address was an almost verbatim repeat of his inaugural speech at the Knesset in May 2006.

Then, too, he spoke of his painful disillusion with the dream of a greater Israel, of the crucial need to divide the land to ensure Israel's Jewish identity for years to come.

"The continuation of scattered settlements throughout Judea and Samaria creates an irrevocable population mix that will endanger Israel's existence as a Jewish state," Olmert warned in 2006. "Two states, or Israel is done for," he said at the Annapolis summit. He reiterated this warning yesterday by saying: "We need to divide the land with our neighbors if we seek to avoid becoming a binational state."

Olmert is consistent and he really does believe that a division of the land is Zionism's lifeline. But he is no political commentator, philosopher or lobbyist. He is the prime minister whose job is to lead, and he is finishing his term without having succeeded in pushing forward the division of the land between Israel and the Palestinians.

The settlements are still scattered across the West Bank, between checkpoint-surrounded Palestinian cities. Olmert approved the construction of thousands of apartments in East Jerusalem and in the settlements on the western side of the security barrier. He refrained from issuing building permits in remote settlements, but he took care not to clash with settlers or forcefully evict them from outposts.

The settlers carried on developing the settlements and outposts on the eastern side of the barrier on their own, even if they failed to draw many new settlers to live there.

The notion of convergence as Olmert presented it before the elections, which entailed the eviction of 80,000 settlers from the eastern side of the barrier, was shelved after the Second Lebanon War. Yesterday, the prime minister condemned the settlers of Yitzhar who attacked their Palestinian neighbors. "We will not allow there to be pogroms against non-Jews in the State of Israel," he said. Had he pushed the convergence plan forward as he had promised, Yitzhar would have been evacuated.

Olmert's negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are meant to establish a border both parties can agree on, which will form the basis for a future permanent agreement. But the negotiations are not finished. Olmert's proposal is still below the minimum the other side is prepared to accept. Olmert will bequeath an active peace process to his successors.

But judging by the statements the hopefuls have made in the Kadima primary campaign, Shaul Mofaz and Tzipi Livni are in no rush to go anywhere. Livni is waiting for the next U.S. administration, while Mofaz has reservations about discussing the core issues, proposing "economic peace" instead.

Olmert has already laid his last card on the table, the eviction-compensation plan for settlers who volunteer to leave their homes on the eastern side of the security barrier. It is best to prepare now, the prime minister proposed, rather than start up when it's too late and much harder.

Vice Premier Haim Ramon, who led the drive to promote a consensual evacuation, has been longing for this day since the government was established. But Olmert only postponed and procrastinated until finally, when the bill's time had finally come, it was handled as something for the record. All four contenders for Kadima's leadership said yesterday they were opposed to the consensual evacuation concept.

What can we learn from Olmert's failure? First, that a prime minister must focus on the main issue. The Second Lebanon War diverted the nation's attention to a different front, whose importance is minor. Israel is paying the price for this in the continuation of a problematic status quo in the territories.

Second, time works against the incumbent. What is postponed during the first year will not come to pass during the second and third.

And finally, you cannot carry out dramatic moves in the framework of peace talks without a strong political backing and public popularity. Otherwise, one stays in the commentator's seat.