Although Ehud Olmert's Kadima (Forward) party drew less support than anticipated, he still emerged ahead of everyone else in the recent Israeli election. He will have to struggle rather more than had been thought to put together a coalition, but it is clear that he will head Israel's next government.
There is hope in this because his election campaign left no room for doubt: he intends to evacuate some 80,000 Jewish settlers from 20 settlements on the West Bank. That campaign won him 28 seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament). The revived Labour party (with its socio-economic agenda), which will back withdrawal, drew 20 seats. Together with other smaller parties (punting religious and other issues) they outweigh those who reject any withdrawal from the West Bank.
The election has confirmed what opinion polls have revealed for a considerable time: the bulk of Israelis want an end to the occupation of the West Bank.
Adding to the sense of hope are the words which Olmert, the morning after the election, publicly addressed to the Palestinian Authority's President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen):
"We are ready to compromise, to give up parts of the beloved Land of Israel, and evacuate – under great pain – Jews living there, in order to create the conditions that will enable you to fulfill your dream and live alongside us."
Abu Mazen responded in equally positive terms, urging the swift start of talks to resuscitate the peace Road Map sponsored by the Quartet - the United States, the UN, Russia and the EU.
The devil, however, is in the details, on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. How far will Olmert actually be willing, or able, to go? Even with the majority of Israeli opinion behind him, he will face immense difficulties in evacuating so many settlers. Some will be willing to be bought out if they are suitably compensated for the loss of their (often) high-quality homes and standard of living; however, the ideologues – notably those with religious messianic belief in Israel’s permanent hold of the West Bank – are already making threatening noises about the resistance they will put up.
Also of concern is how Olmert will seek to resolve critical issues such as the fate of the refugees of the 1948 and 1967 wars, Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state and ensuring geographical contiguity for the state-to-be.
As matters stand at present, Israel will insist on retaining what it has and even extending control. Thus not only will the town of Ma'ale Adumim, with 35,000 residents, be retained, but the 8km between it and Jerusalem, known as E1, will be filled with houses for Jews. This will cut the West Bank into two: a terminal to control Palestinian passage is already built and a tunnel will be added to carry cars and buses underneath E1. To the north, the town of Ariel, also with thousands of people and sticking into the West Bank, is to be kept as part of Israel.
As always, security will dominate: a country that has been under non-stop threat and violent attack for the 57 years of its existence is unlikely, for example, to yield control of the hills which overlook its Ben-Gurion international airport. If anyone needed reminding of the meaning of this, it came on election day when a Katyusha rocket -- with a longer range than the hundreds of Qassams usually fired from the Gaza Strip --landed near the town of Ashkelon.
The 660km-long barrier/fence/wall is being constructed as rapidly as possible, with only limited attention to the dislocation and suffering it causes to Palestinians separated from their lands, schools, or families. The scores of settlements which lie to the west of the wall will be retained: these are "facts on the ground," bricks and mortar and the people's realities of Israeli presence, and takes up about 8 percent of the West Bank.
Moreover, while Olmert invites Abu Mazen to enter into negotiations over the permanent borders of Israel – astonishingly, still unresolved since the state’s creation in May 1948 – he bluntly adds that Israel will act alone, unilaterally, if peace efforts remain stalled.
There are also questions for Palestinians: Does Abu Mazen have the capacity to offer talks that can be meaningful? He is President, with all sorts of theoretical power as the head of the Palestinian Authority. However, exactly what this might mean in relation to Hamas' victory in the legislative council elections and the swearing in of a Hamas government this week is still uncertain.
On the day that the Israelis went to the polls, Dr Nasser Eddin, deputy to the new Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, told Haaretz newspaper that the Hamas government "does not reject coordination and cooperation to resolve routine problems with anyone, including Israel." However, he followed this seemingly conciliatory comment by saying that this did not mean any willingness to make concessions on political matters. Later that day, Haniyeh presented his cabinet to the Palestinian parliament and said his government will work towards peace, security and stability in the region and will spare no effort to reach a just peace and end the occupation.
Words to give hope, perhaps. However, at the same time, Hamas is unyielding in its commitment to destroy Israel. Whatever Olmert's good intentions might be, that devastatingly excludes negotiation for compromises which both Israelis and Palestinians will have to make for peace.
Benjamin Pogrund is Director of Yakar's Centre for Social Concern in Jerusalem. South African-born, he was Deputy Editor of the Rand Daily Mail, Johannesburg, and has written books about Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, Nelson Mandela, and the Press under apartheid.
This article was originally published by the University of Pretoria Centre for International Political Studies at http://www.up.ac.za/academic/cips
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