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Israeli policy headed for change

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, seated next to Ehud Olmert at a Cabinet meeting, is a leading contender to succeed the prime minister. (BPH Images/JTA)

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, seated next to Ehud Olmert at a Cabinet meeting, is a leading contender to succeed the prime minister. (BPH Images/JTA)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to resign after a new Kadima Party leader is elected in September has opened up the possibility of radical new directions in Israeli policy.

As of now Olmert has four potential successors, since Kadima’s new leader may not be able to stave off new general elections.

Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party and Shaul Mofaz of Kadima are inveterate hawks who see peace, if it is at all possible, being achieved only in drawn-out, painstaking stages. Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Ehud Barak of the Labor Party are pragmatic doves ready to cut to the chase but wary of illusory quick fixes.

Important differences exist within the two camps.

Netanyahu views the current attempt by the Olmert government to reach final peace deals with the Palestinians and the Syrians as foolhardy. He is against what he calls “endism” – trying to end the complex Israeli-Arab conflict with a single stroke – and instead advocates a measured, step-by-step approach.

For example, on the Syrian track, Damascus would have to break with Tehran and demonstrate over time that the breach is final before Israel returns any part of the Golan Heights. Other powers interested in moving Syria away from Iran, including the United States and the European Union, would be called on to provide much of the quid pro quo to Syria, making it possible for Israel to retain at least part of the strategic Golan.

On the Palestinian track, Netanyahu regards the “shelf agreement” Olmert is negotiating with the relatively moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank as meaningless. Under present conditions, with Hamas controlling Gaza, Netanyahu sees no way to implement an agreement now or in the foreseeable future.

Instead, he again advocates a step-by-step framework in which each side progresses only after the other has fulfilled a commitment. Under Ariel Sharon, this performance-based, reciprocal approach led to a stalemate.

Netanyahu hopes that the creation of new economic realities in the West Bank will provide the infrastructure for political progress. The former prime minister strongly backs efforts to that effect by Tony Blair, the special envoy of the Quartet grouping of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

Like Blair, Netanyahu sees economic progress driving a peace process, not the other way round.

Netanyahu’s top priority, however, would be stopping Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. He has been urging world leaders to impose stronger economic sanctions on Tehran to alleviate the need for force. But if Netanyahu becomes prime minister, a pre-emptive Israeli military strike cannot be ruled out.

Mofaz, although he abandoned the Likud for Kadima, is as hawkish as Netanyahu. In fact, were the current transportation minister to win the Kadima leadership, the split between Likud and Kadima could become a thing of the past. Mofaz left Likud reluctantly when pressed by Sharon, Kadima’s founder, and after Sharon promised to make him defense minister.

The Iranian-born Mofaz takes a long view of historic processes in the Middle East who sees change evolving slowly over decades. Peace, in his view, will come only when conditions are ripe and cannot be accelerated artificially.

On the Syrian track, Mofaz says he is ready to offer “peace for peace” – an old Likud counter to the Arab land-for-peace formula. He also would be unlikely to make territorial concessions on the Palestinian front.

Indeed Mofaz, a former army chief of staff and defense minister, would likely be less industrious than Netanyahu in creating conditions for peace, but more proactive in trying to stop Iran from going nuclear.

Mofaz, who heads the Israeli team in strategic dialogue with the United States, has warned that Iran will cross the nuclear weapons threshold in 2009 or 2010 and said that if the international community fails to interdict the process, Israel will.

Like his colleagues on the right, Barak sees the Middle East as a tough, unforgiving neighborhood in which the weak are devoured – he once famously described Israel as a “villa in the jungle.”

The difference between Barak and the hard-line Netanyahu and Mofaz is his conviction that Israel to survive must be strong and divest itself of the West Bank to ensure a Jewish majority in a democratic state.

After the failure of the Camp David negotiations with Yasser Arafat in 2000, the then-prime minister Barak was quick to claim there was no genuine Palestinian peace partner. That led him to back the notion of unilateral withdrawal as the only way to establish a border between Israel and the Palestinians.

Barak modified his thinking, however, when Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was followed by ceaseless Kassam rocket attacks. He still seems to envisage an eventual unilateral pullout from the West Bank, but only after Israel has an effective anti-missile defense system.

As defense minister, Barak has made the development of a multilayered anti-missile system – one that provides protection against long-, medium- and short-range missiles – a top priority.

Livni, whose parents both fought for the prestate Irgun underground, entered politics in 1996 holding fiercely hawkish positions. But as minister for regional cooperation in the first Sharon government in 2001, she underwent a profound ideological metamorphosis, turning from hawk to relative dove.

A lawyer by training, Livni places supreme importance on Israel retaining international legitimacy by withdrawing to a line close to the 1967 borders and allowing the Palestinians to establish a state of their own.

Livni, now the foreign minister, sees one of the main tasks of government as securing the best post-withdrawal conditions for Israel. For example, she insists that no Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel proper, arguing that the Palestinians cannot simultaneously demand a state and insist that their refugees be settled somewhere else.

Livni was one of the chief backers of Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, but also after the Kassams from Gaza, she says Israel cannot simply leave the West Bank and “throw the keys over the fence.”

Thus, unlike her three main rivals, Livni advocates intensive negotiations with the Palestinians on a final peace deal and bringing in an international force to help implement it. But Livni is in no hurry and would be less likely than Olmert to make concessions on key principles – like the refugee issue – for a deal.

The first stage in the battle to succeed Olmert is scheduled for Sept. 17, when Kadima holds its primary. Livni and Mofaz are the runaway front-runners: A recent poll in Israel’s daily Ma’ariv gave Livni 51 percent of the party vote to Mofaz’s 43 percent.

The second stage in the leadership stakes could come as soon as early 2009. If Kadima’s winner fails to assemble a coalition government, the Knesset will be dissolved and early general elections would be held, bringing Netanyahu and Barak into the picture.

Whoever finally emerges as the new prime minister, a break with Olmert’s policies seems certain.

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