Olmert's Gamble

Olmert is proposing to draw a 'permanent border,' but he seems to forget that political borders are drawn by agreement and not by force.

In anticipation of the expected decision on the future of Israeli control over the West Bank, a group of people from the security-right came out with an initiative to set "defensible borders" for Israel.

The starting point for the supporters of this idea, headed by former chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon and former UN ambassador Dore Gold, is that withdrawal to the 1967 borders will create an existential threat for Israel. The tiny state will not be able to defend itself against a ground invasion, will find it difficult to fend off missiles and prevent terror attacks, and its withdrawal will encourage the enemy to attack. Therefore, Israel must enlist domestic and international support for continuing to hold onto the mountain ridges.

There's no doubt Israel deserves "defensible borders." But the word "defense" has two meanings, military and legal, and the gap between the meanings represents Israel's political dilemma. Nowadays, tanks, fortifications and fighters are not enough to protect the border. A good defense attorney is also required.

Israel learned as much two years ago, at the hearings about the separation fence in the international court at the Hague, where it stood accused and was punished by a harsh decision that recognized the Green Line as the border. The justices at the Hague preferred the legal legitimacy of the cease-fire lines over the security need to build the fence.

Now Israel has to decide which defense it wants in the West Bank - military or legal. If it chooses the hills and ridges, which will grant the IDF observation points and room to maneuver, it will find it difficult winning international recognition. If it prefers full withdrawal, then it might win applause in the UN, but it will bring the enemy much closer to Israel's population centers.

The choice of the defensive line seems to be self evident. But experience shows that in all those cases where it was tested, Israel preferred international recognition and retreated to the last millimeter. That's what happened in Sinai, the Arava (in the peace agreement with Jordan), in Lebanon and in Gaza. Even the current line on the Golan, which is not a recognized border, was agreed upon with Syria. And the "Bush letter" to Ariel Sharon, which recognized "Israeli population centers" in the territories, says that the final border will only be determined through an agreement with the Palestinians.

Now Ehud Olmert is proposing to draw a "permanent border" in the West Bank east of the Green Line, and is offering the international community a deal: the evacuation of 70,000 settlers from their homes in exchange for recognition that "Ariel is Israel," and accepting a connection between Ma'aleh Adumim with Jerusalem. Olmert wants to achieve both a military and legal defense, and believes he will be able to leverage in his favor the Hamas victory in the Palestinian election and the rest of the Bush administration's term in office. But that is an illusion. Israel will certainly be complimented on reducing its presence in the territories, but Olmert's border line will not be accepted as a recognized international border. The new lines in Gaza were also not granted that status despite the embraces and praises for Sharon.

As an experienced lawyer, Olmert certainly knows that political borders are drawn by agreement and not by force. He is striving to find the fulcrum that will turn the current state of occupation, which is not acceptable to the international community, into a border dispute, like many others around the world.

From his statements, one can understand that he wants to reduce the suffocating pressure on Israel and to improve its shaky position in the family of nations. He hopes that holding onto about 10 percent of the West Bank, together with East Jerusalem, will become embedded in international awareness as a permanent situation, and meanwhile reduce the interest in the tribulations of the Palestinians - at least until they change and ripen into readiness for compromise and an agreement.

Olmert's gamble is not simple: Even if he manages to sell the evacuated settlements in exchange for political support from Washington, he could find out that the angry Palestinians have set out to foil his plans.