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For Olmert, Good Ratings So Far, but Tough Decisions on the Horizon

January 18, 2006
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Widely praised for the low-key and sensitive manner in which he has taken over from ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert is the odds-on favorite to win Israel’s March 28 general election. But the acting prime minister faces a number of severe early tests, and his continued popularity depends on how he copes.

First there is a potential flashpoint in Hebron, where young, right-wing Jewish extremists have been defying police and soldiers and challenging Olmert’s authority.

Then there are a number of delicate issues regarding Palestinian elections on Jan. 25. Olmert already has had to make a call on whether there can be voting in eastern Jerusalem, and likely will have to decide in the immediate aftermath on Israel’s attitude toward a Palestinian government including or even dominated by the terrorist group Hamas.

In the run-up to Israel’s own election, Olmert will have to decide how specific he wants to be about the possibility of a second Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, following Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank last summer.

How Olmert deals with the Hebron challenge could set the tone for something much bigger — future Israeli withdrawals from large parts of the West Bank. The standoff has been over the government’s intention to evict Jewish settlers from Arab property in the town’s vegetable market. The settlers say the property originally was Jewish-owned, and therefore claim legal title to it.

Last Friday, young radicals from all over the West Bank converged on Hebron to confront police and soldiers tasked with the evacuation. The radicals, many of them masked, went on the rampage Sunday, destroying and burning Palestinian property and pelting Israeli security forces with stones and eggs.

They also used threatening and insulting language. The wife of Moshe Levinger, a prominent settler rabbi, railed at the police, “Sharon is dying because of our curses. You are next.”

Israeli commentators agree that the showdown goes well beyond the few shops being evacuated in Hebron. The settlers have two goals, they say: to cloud the memory of the successful and relatively peaceful evacuation of Gaza, and to drive home the message that any further attempted withdrawal will encounter fierce opposition.

“It is enough to look at the statements of a few settler leaders to understand that the struggle is to obscure the success of the disengagement from Gaza by standing firm against the government in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” Ha’aretz editorialized. “Olmert, who supported the disengagement and sees himself as Ariel Sharon’s heir, will not be able to explain away any weakness he shows when confronted by a group of hooligans.”

Yediot Achronot’s military analyst Alex Fishman added that “anyone privy to the settler scene would have known that after the disengagement, things in the West Bank would escalate, the Settlers Council would lose its power and the extremist margins would expand and grow even more extreme.”

Faced with the settler challenge, Olmert has been talking tough. In a government meeting Monday he banged his fist on the table and promised zero tolerance toward the extremists, whom he described as “a particularly violent group.”

The immediate result was an army order declaring the disputed market a closed military zone, and instructing soldiers and police to eject anyone who doesn’t live there.

By Tuesday most of the outside settlers had been sent packing, on the understanding that the eviction of the Hebron settlers who had taken up residence in the market would be postponed for two weeks. Whether this proves a brilliant tactical retreat — enabling the government to go in with much bigger forces next time — or a costly show of weakness remains to be seen.

Olmert’s next vital decision may be what to do about Hamas. By allowing Palestinians to vote in Jerusalem and Hamas to participate in the election, he already has laid himself open to a welter of right-wing criticism. The Likud’s Silvan Shalom, who resigned on Sunday as foreign minister, charged that Olmert has triggered a process that inevitably will lead to Israel negotiating with a terrorist organization that doesn’t recognize the Jewish state.

There is talk of plans for Olmert to fly to Washington soon after the Palestinian ballot to coordinate positions on Hamas with the Bush administration. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said that to participate in government, Hamas will have to accept all previous Palestinian agreements with Israel, including recognition of Israel.

Israel and the United States probably will add two more conditions: that Hamas desist from terrorism and that it disarm its militia. Unless that happens, Israel could well find itself without a peace partner on the Palestinian side.

That leads to Olmert’s third big decision. His position on peacemaking with the Palestinians has been to insist that the internationally approved “road map” plan is the only game in town. But if Hamas’ inclusion in a Palestinian government makes talks impossible, will Olmert be ready to go into more detail than Sharon about possible unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank?

Former Mossad analyst Yossi Alpher, now co-editor of the Web site, thinks he will.

“Olmert — who, to his credit, started talking about disengagement and the need to avoid a South African scenario at least a year before Sharon — may feel a need to be more explicit on these issues to ensure that the public understands why he is different from Likud and Labor,” Alpher says.

The decisions for Olmert are particularly tricky because they occur in the run-up to an election and could have electoral fallout. Moreover, whatever Olmert does will be measured against what people think Sharon would have done.

So far Olmert is riding high: Polls give his Kadima Party between 40 and 52 seats in the 120-member Knesset. That’s more than its two closest rivals, Labor and Likud, put together.

Still, mistakes on the key issues could hurt Olmert’s electoral prospects — and also prove costly for Israel.

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