JERUSALEM (May. 21)
Before his first meeting with President Bush this week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert remains firmly committed to his “convergence plan,” the evacuation of tens of thousands of Jewish settlers from the West Bank and the establishment of new borders between Israel and the Palestinians by 2010. But even after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank last summer, the Bush administration and its partners in the “Quartet” working for Israeli-Palestinian peace, the European Union, United Nations and Russia, would prefer to see Israel and the Palestinians negotiating under the terms of the “road map,” which provides a framework for step-by-step peacemaking.
Olmert says he is ready to try negotiations, but if it becomes clear that there is no serious Palestinian partner, he intends to go ahead with his plan unilaterally.
What is the convergence plan?
The idea is to relocate far-flung, isolated West Bank settlements in existing large settlement blocs closer to the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. This will mean a “convergence,” or in-gathering, of settlements behind the security barrier Israel is building in the West Bank. Of the 250,000 settlers in the West Bank, an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 will be affected.
The idea behind the “convergence” is to create a clear separation between Israelis and Palestinians, with Israelis to the west of the barrier, Palestinians to the east. The concentration of settlements in a much smaller area will make it easier for the Israel Defense Forces to defend them.
The move could also trigger a two-state dynamic: Israel on one side of the fence, which would become a temporary or perhaps permanent border, and Palestine on the other. If the convergence is achieved through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the borders would presumably be permanent and approved by the international community. If, however, Israel moves unilaterally, it could leave the door open to future final border negotiations with the Palestinians, or seek international approval for the new lines it sets on its own.
How does Olmert’s “convergence” differ from Sharon’s “disengagement” from Gaza and the northern West Bank last summer?
First, the scale is much larger. Last summer’s evacuation affected about 9,000 settlers; the convergence plan could touch 10 times that number. Second, Olmert will have to decide which of the two disengagement models to adopt: Full withdrawal, as was the case with Gaza, or continued presence as in the northern West Bank? The advantage of a total pullback is that it would herald the end of the occupation and win international kudos for Israel; a continued military presence in the evacuated areas, however, could make it easier to fight terror and in particular, to minimize the firing of rockets across the border.
Why is Olmert so intent on going through with the “convergence” plan?
He calls it “Zionism’s lifeline.” That is because he believes Israel cannot allow itself to be sucked into an endless occupation that might lead to international pressure for a one-state solution, in which Palestinians would be the majority. In Olmert’s view, Israel cannot allow a rejectionist Palestinian government, like Hamas, or a weak Palestinian leader, like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to enforce a status quo, which has the seeds of a one-state dynamic that could spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state. The “convergence” plan is to a large measure designed to pre-empt that scenario, by creating a clear-cut Jewish majority in a smaller Israel. If it works, the plan will defuse the “demographic time bomb” and regain for Israel, no longer an occupier, the moral high ground in any ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
But why can’t Israel just wait for a strong, pragmatic Palestinian partner to emerge?
Because the demographics would be shifting in the Palestinians’ favor, and the continued occupation could lead to an erosion in Israel’s international position. Therefore, Olmert speaks of Israel “taking its fate into its own hands.”
Where will a unilateral “convergence” by Israel leave final-status issues, like refugees, Jerusalem and permanent borders?
Olmert hopes it will create the contours of a permanent peace agreement that can be hammered out in the future with a pragmatic Palestinian leadership. It leaves open the possibility of border rectifications and arrangements in Jerusalem. As for refugees, although it does preclude an agreement, Israel will insist that the issue be solved within the confines of the Palestinian state, with no right of refugee return to Israel.
If no Palestinian partner emerges, will Israel be able to persuade the international community to recognize the new lines as permanent borders?
Olmert would like to get an American commitment on this, which would help him gain stronger domestic support for the plan. This, however, does not seem likely now. A few years down the road, however, especially if Hamas is still in power, things could change.
What about the Jordan Valley, part of the West Bank that Israel considers strategically crucial?
This could be a source of future friction between Israel and the United States. Olmert wants to maintain some sort of military presence there. The Americans might argue that such an Israeli presence impinges on their view of a viable Palestinian state.
How do the Palestinians and Arab states view the convergence plan?
They are all strongly opposed. The Palestinians fear they could be marginalized and left facing a fait accompli which serves Israeli rather than their interests. Jordan and Egypt fear it could radicalize frustrated Palestinians even further, with a potential for violent spillover into their territories. Jordan’s King Abdullah has complained that the convergence plan could sound the death knell for the Hashemite Kingdom.
How much settler opposition is there likely to be?
Settlers are threatening much stronger resistance than there was in the Gaza/northern West Bank evacuation. But their leaders promise to bar physical violence against the evacuating forces.
How much is it likely to cost?
Initial estimates suggest it could go as high as $18 billion, based on the $1.8 billion cost of the disengagement plan.