As expected, Ehud Olmert, the leader of the Kadima party founded by Ariel Sharon last year, won a mandate to govern Israel in the election of March 28, albeit one smaller than predicted. Kadima’s rise, and the dramatic decline of the previously ruling Likud party, represents the most significant shake-up of Israeli politics since at least 1977.
Ehud Olmert has made it clear that his core goal is a new form of disengagement from the West Bank, termed “convergence”, following in the footsteps of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza last year. Actually, the word “convergence” is a poor translation of the Hebrew word he used, hitkansut, which means literally, “going-into-oneself” and has also been referred to as “consolidation”.
Olmert has said that he plans to begin a process of “internal negotiations” within Israel, followed by talks with Washington and the international community to cement support for permanent borders, before initiating a future withdrawal from most of the West Bank. His goal is to set Israel’s borders by 2010, unilaterally if a negotiated agreement proves impossible. A key Kadima leader, former Labor minister Haim Ramon, recently added that the actual withdrawal process will begin in another year, and only if additional attempts to negotiate an agreement with the Palestinians based on the Roadmap are unsuccessful.
While some are presenting this strategy as one of despair or exhaustion, it is actually being seen by Israelis as a way to control their own destiny and seize the initiative in the conflict with the Palestinians. There is a semi-open strategy among many Palestinian leaders that through refusal to compromise, demographics and modulated terrorism when convenient, the Palestinians can prolong the conflict indefinitely until such time as they are able to achieve all of their goals, including the dissolution of Israel. Unilateralism allows Israelis not only to improve their security situation by separating from Palestinian population centres, but also makes it clear to the Palestinians that the idea that time is always on their side is incorrect.
As Olmert recently stated, “The people of Israel don’t have time to wait 20 years for Hamas to mature. The state of Israel cannot allow a fundamentalist Palestinian Authority to dictate its political calendar.” Olmert, despite coming from a background on Israel’s ideological right, was one of the architects of disengagement from Gaza under Sharon, and the former PM’s closest confidante in cabinet. It is clear that the new PM has a very definite vision of the need for separation from the Palestinians, and will make this his major focus in government.
Olmert’s first task will be to form a coalition government that will allow him to put his plan into effect, and this task is made harder by the fact that Kadima’s plurality was narrower than expected. He will almost certainly look first to the centre-left Labor party as allies, as they are basically amenable to his plans for “convergence”. Labor did better than expected on a program of increased social welfare and higher minimum wages. Olmert has all but ruled out a coalition with the parties of the right. That means he will have to seek the support of either of two ultra-Orthodox parties, and other smaller parties, such as the left-wing Meretz and a new Pensioners Party which was the biggest surprise winner in this election. Coalition cannot be ruled out either with Yisrael Beitenu, a right-wing party which appeals primarily to immigrants from the former Soviet Union and was one of the biggest winners in this election, almost equalling the Likud.
Coalition negotiations are likely to take weeks to months to complete, if past Israeli elections are any guide. At the end of that time, Olmert and his new government will have a vast agenda on their plate. Aside from routine governance and domestic reforms, they will be trying to cope with the new Hamas-led Palestinian Government while simultaneously feeling out Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about the prospects of some sort of Roadmap based agreement to allow a West Bank disengagement.
Hamas has made it clear that its goal is to consolidate power in preparation for a subsequent round of violence with Israel, and that neither recognition of Israel nor renunciation of terror is on the table, only a temporary truce. Israelis would have to be suicidal to help them prepare for a later confrontation, and will have to lobby hard to make sure that Hamas receives no support or direct aid unless it unequivocally does what the Quartet (the UN, EU, US and Russia) have demanded of it- agree to recognise Israel, renounce terror, and adhere to all existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
At the same time, the new Israeli government will be seeking international support for a potential series of unilateral moves – including withdrawing settlements and most military bases from the majority of the West Bank where the Palestinian population is centred. While the Palestinians and their supporters will condemn this as both one-sided and inadequate, it will be difficult for them to argue with the fact that Israel is moving to give Palestinians much of what they say they want.
This election result shows very clearly that Israelis are eager for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In fact, Israelis like newly elected Prime Minister Olmert are keener for such a solution than many Palestinians, including the new Hamas Palestinian government, which continues to seek an Islamic state “from the river to the sea.” The next few years will likely be dominated by a complex and extended effort by Israel’s new government to put in place the basic outline of such a resolution, whether Hamas and other rejectionists like it or not.