Ehud Olmert’s pledge to unilaterally establish Israel’s permanent borders within four years could turn out to be the defining moment of the country’s election campaign. With the ballot just two weeks away, the interim prime minister has set the agenda, pre-empting the Labor Party to the left and sharpening differences with the Likud Party to the right.
Labor claims Olmert has stolen its ideas; the Likud says that he has turned the election into a referendum on his plan to cede territory without getting anything in return.
With his Kadima Party slipping in opinion polls, Olmert is taking a huge gamble. Some right-wingers claim that by putting his cards so clearly on the table, he plays into their hands.
Beyond the electioneering, Olmert’s statement has major regional and international ramifications. On the Palestinian side, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal called it a “declaration of war” against the Palestinians. Israeli pundits ask, will Israel be able to set permanent borders, recognized by the international community, without negotiating with the Palestinians?
In weekend interviews with all the Israeli dailies, Olmert outlined his plan: By 2010, isolated West Bank settlements will be dismantled and the settlers relocated in large settlement blocs closer to the pre-1967 boundary, known as the Green Line.
The security fence will become the new, permanent border, with Israelis on one side, Palestinians on the other. In some cases the fence will be moved further east, in others further west, to correspond with the new boundary route.
The new, permanent border will consolidate Israel as a Jewish state with an overwhelming Jewish majority.
According to Olmert, the Palestinians will be given a limited amount of time to enter negotiations, but if they don’t, Israel will carry out the plan unilaterally. In the absence of a Palestinian partner, Israel will negotiate the border demarcation with the international community.
It also will hold a dialogue with the settlers, aimed at reaching consensus on which settlements will be evacuated and where the settlers will be relocated.
These ideas have been around for a while, leaked by other Kadima Party leaders and aides, but this is the first time Olmert has openly backed them.
In going public two weeks before the election Olmert apparently hopes to kill two birds with one stone, giving voters a clear vision they can latch onto and pre-empting a mooted Labor-Likud coalition that would form a government in Kadima’s stead.
Kadima strategists believe this clarity is what voters want to hear. Compared to Labor’s insistence on negotiations with a nonexistent Palestinian partner and the Likud’s doom-and-gloom predictions, Olmert’s formula will attract conflict-weary Israelis, they argue.
Olmert’s policy statement also makes a Likud-Labor coalition that bypasses Kadima virtually impossible. How would Labor justify choosing Likud when Olmert is committed to a withdrawal almost identical to Labor’s own proposed pullback? political analyst Yossi Verter asked in Ha’aretz.
“Olmert’s move struck down the hallucinatory visions of a Labor-right-wing coalition to block Kadima,” Verter wrote. “What could the Likud offer” Labor leader Amir Peretz “after the election? A bigger pullout than Olmert’s?”
With Olmert setting the agenda, Likud and Labor are trying to turn his candor to their advantage. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu hardened his already hawkish line in a bid to discredit Olmert as too dovish. The Likud, Netanyahu said, would not countenance unilateral withdrawals or a Palestinian state, and would not join a coalition led by someone “as left-wing as Olmert.”
Labor took the opposite tack: Implementing Olmert’s policies would require a strong Labor contingent in the coalition, party activists argued.
Some right-wingers, however, are convinced that Olmert has made a huge blunder that could cost him the election. Moving from house to house, right-wing settlers are trying to use Olmert’s plan to trigger wholesale defections from Kadima. Their aim: to shift a block of eight seats from Kadima to the right-wing parties, enough to give the right an upset victory.
That’s a tall order, and the smart money is still on Olmert to win the election. His forthrightness might even increase his majority.
The question then becomes whether Olmert will be able to get the international community to recognize borders Israel decides for itself, without consulting the Palestinians. Getting international support clearly is a major element of Olmert’s strategy: Before he made his statement, he put out feelers to the Americans, with whom he hopes to coordinate any pullback.
According to Israeli sources, the Americans understand that with the terrorist group Hamas in power on the Palestinian side, Israel has to consider unilateral moves. The Israeli thinking is that if the United States recognizes permanent borders, the rest of the international community will follow.
Several leading Israeli pundits, however, doubt that Israel has the clout to dictate where the borders will run, and imply that Olmert’s plan is based on wishful thinking.
“We are not a victorious empire that can draw lines on the desert sands of the Middle East as it pleases,” Sever Plotzker wrote in Yediot Achronot. “We were never authorized to do so in the past and we won’t be in future. The map drawers are like dream merchants: They try to sell us anachronistic hopes.”
While welcoming Olmert’s “refreshing lack of doublespeak,” Ha’aretz also questioned Israel’s capacity to set its own borders. But it argued that the fear that Israel might be allowed to do so could jolt the Palestinians into bona fide negotiations.
Olmert’s plan could serve as a “catalyst that leads both sides to negotiate a mutually beneficial permanent-status agreement,” Ha’aretz wrote.
As for Olmert, he hopes his plan first will win him the election and then write him into the history books as the leader who, after more than 60 years of statehood, finally established Israel’s permanent borders around 2010.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.