Olmert's Troubles Ahead

Olmert's campaign vow to find a pullout plan acceptable to both the Americans and to the settlers will inevitably force him to retract some of his pre-election promises.

Ehud Olmert presented his convergence plan before the elections, and it appears he will succeed in establishing a coalition that will support a major withdrawal in the West Bank and the evacuation of most settlements beyond the separation fence. His intention was transparent: If his plan is implemented, no one will be able to accuse him of making an ideological U-turn or denying his early promises, as they accused Ariel Sharon of doing after the 2003 elections. With me, Olmert promised, there will be no "rebels."

But the early declarations did not get rid of all the troubles of the prime minister-designate. The obstacle is concealed in his dual promise - to hold an "internal dialogue" about his plan with the Yesha Council of settlements and to win American support for the plan. Olmert hopes he will manage to convince at least some settlers to accept the package deal of expanding the settlement blocs, while evacuating isolated areas and receiving American and international recognition of his withdrawal line as a permanent border. In his eyes, it will be the parting gift that U.S. President George W. Bush will give Israel.

The problem is that there is no chance of the White House and Yesha Council agreeing on the same withdrawal line. And so Olmert, like Sharon before him, will reach the point where he will have to decide between Bush and settler leader Ze'ev Hever (Zambish). The dilemma is simple: The settlers will pressure the government to minimize and delay the withdrawal and increase the amount of compensation for the evacuees, and the Americans will clarify that the price of their support is that Israel moves toward the Green Line. That's what happened in the last round, when the Americans demanded that Sharon give something in the West Bank in exchange for presidential statements that were comfortable for Israel regarding permanent borders and refugees; they weren't satisfied with the evacuation of the Gaza Strip.

What will Olmert do? Will he prefer to try to buy some domestic quiet from the settlers, or will he accede to the Americans? Past experience shows that Israeli leaders ultimately act according to dictates from Washington. Bush, like his father, made the collapse of Israeli settlements in the territories into one of his central policy goals in the region. The flexibility of the son compared to the father was expressed in his readiness to portray the withdrawal and evacuation as an Israeli initiative rather than as diplomatic coercion. We cannot expect his policy to change following the leadership transition in Jerusalem.

All of Olmert's predecessors since the outbreak of the first intifada have ended their terms to the left of the positions on which they were elected. That's what happened to Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Sharon. It's hard to believe that Olmert will manage to break this tradition, or will even try to do so - certainly not after the election results strengthened the left wing of his future coalition.

The conclusion is that if Olmert wants American recognition, withdrawal to the separation fence will only be the opening position. That means that even the sacred settlement blocs, the stronghold of Israeli consensus, will have to shrink. Two concessions are possible: the "convergence" of small satellite settlements around Ma'aleh Adumim and the large territory between them, and the evacuation of Ariel, which is trapped deep in the heart of the Palestinian region and linked to Israel via the thin tie of the Trans-Samaria Highway, without contiguous construction. That's the map accepted by the Palestinian partners to the Geneva initiative, and it will allow the Americans to argue that it will form the basis of a viable Palestinian state in the future.

These decisions remain in the distance. First, Olmert will have to establish a coalition and waste a few months ostensibly "searching for a partner" on the Palestinian side before turning to implementation of a unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank. But his policy is leading him to the point where he will have to retract his pre-elections statement that "Ariel is Israel." And then people will be able to argue that Olmert, too, is not fulfilling his promises.