Seize the Opportunity

Acting PM Olmert is finding it difficult to enforce his authority on ministers and senior party members, who complicated matters by issuing problematic and contradictory statements about the Palestinians.

Ehud Olmert has a problem. Kadima's campaign managers have dressed him up in Ariel Sharon's flak jacket, which doesn't fit. Olmert is finding it difficult to enforce his authority on ministers and senior party members, who complicated matters by issuing problematic and contradictory statements about the Palestinians - whether due to inexperience (Tzipi Livni), fear for their future (Shaul Mofaz), or old habits (Shimon Peres). Sharon would have got out of it with a cynical comment. Olmert needs excuses, which expose his weakness.

But the problem runs deeper. Since Hamas' victory, the Kadima government is finding it difficult to explain its goals. After making strident comments against the "terrorist authority," Olmert made do with a freeze on the transfer of Palestinian tax money. "That's the minimum we could do," say senior officials, adding, "We stopped the international erosion." Great, but to what end? Does Olmert want to undermine Hamas rule so Fatah regains power, or to force a military coup in the Palestinian Authority? Or on the contrary, does he want to legitimize Hamas as a partner if it accepts Olmert's conditions? Or is it meant to show that he isn't soft on Arabs as Likud propagandists are trying to portray him.

Kadima has a detailed program regarding the Palestinian issue: two states, a permanent arrangement, annexation of holy places, settlement blocs, and security zones. But it doesn't have a clue how to get there. The winning formula in Sharon's campaigns, "Trust me and things will be fine," is inappropriate for what has emerged with Olmert's rise and Hamas' victory, and also is unnecessary. Here's an alternative that has proven itself at the polls: Ehud Barak promised to get out of Lebanon in a year and defeated Netanyahu. It is possible that such an approach is more appropriate for a decisive politician like Olmert, and will make it easier for him to deal with the conservatives in the defense establishment.

Lacking policy, Israel is sinking into old habits - a pathetic attempt to manage the Palestinians, examine every one of their projects and checks, open every package, write the schoolbooks, and play off the politicians in Gaza against those in Ramallah. That is the tragedy of the conflict: Israel is reluctant to give up the mentality of the occupier, and the Palestinians are addicted to the pose of the occupied, which grants them international stature.

Olmert understands that the Palestinian quagmire is harmful to Israel as its international legitimacy is eroded, and the country will find it difficult to live with a situation in which IDF officers avoid entering enlightened countries due to war crime accusations.

This is Olmert's opportunity to shake off old ways. Instead of pleading with Ismail Haniyeh to accept Oslo, Hamas' victory can be exploited to impose the two-state solution. The Palestinians want freedom? Go ahead. Israel will announce that within a year it is giving up all responsibility for Gaza. No workers, no taxes, no electricity, no water. Let the Palestinians organize themselves to receive those services from Egypt, build a deep sea port and airport, and take the risk of a harsh reaction if the terror continues. In the West Bank, Israel will withdraw to the fence, and announce its readiness to negotiate any remaining border disputes. It sounds frightening, but in the north, Israel faced Syria and Hezbollah, which are a lot more heavily armed than the Palestinians and no less hostile, without controlling them through banks and food. And they are not shooting.

For nearly two decades, since the first intifada, Israel has been conducting rearguard action for control over the territories against a Palestinian uprising and terror as well as international pressure to withdraw. All the governments, from all the parties, fought to slow down the process, and all gave up more than they wanted and invested wasted billions in the settlements. That will also happen to Olmert if he doesn't dare to take the initiative.