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Olmert Begins State Visits to Enlist Support for Pullout

June 5, 2006
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With Israel’s coalition government already shaky, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been busy enlisting foreign support for his West Bank withdrawal plan. Fresh from last month’s White House visit, Olmert set off Sunday for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He is also due to meet with the leaders of Jordan, Britain, Germany and France, culminating in a summit with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the end of the month.

Olmert denies that he is straying from his original vision of leaving parts of the territory and annexing others if there are no peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority under Hamas. Any significant progress with the more moderate Abbas, he says, would still be contingent on Hamas being curbed.

“We are not shunning him,” Olmert told Cabinet ministers, referring to Abbas. “We would be pleased if he had the ability to exercise his power over the authority.”

As it happens, Hamas is facing a domestic crisis. Starved of foreign aid since the radical Islamist group came to power, many Palestinians are withdrawing their support for it. But some observers believe such a collapse would be more likely to deepen the chaos on the Palestinian street than boost Abbas. That would mean more instability in the Middle East, which explains Olmert’s efforts to enlist Egyptian, Jordanian and European endorsement.

Being well-received in foreign capitals could also help Olmert offset the deepening rifts in his own administration.

His centrist Kadima Party, created by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is untested and commands only a slim lead in terms of parliamentary seats.

Kadima’s biggest partner in government, the Labor Party, is increasingly a loose cannon as its chief, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, struggles to ward off challenges to his authority from ex-military party colleagues.

On Sunday, Kadima’s Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter complained in the Cabinet about Peretz’s handling of Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Olmert backed Peretz. But few forget that, just last week, the prime minister unceremoniously cut defense funding without a consultation with the Labor chief, prompting the party to abstain from a crucial Cabinet vote on the 2006 national budget.

A senior Labor official, speaking to JTA on condition of anonymity, predicted that with the party scheduled to hold internal elections in a year, the Olmert government’s days are numbered.

“Amir is going to find himself seriously challenged, and Olmert in turn. One wonders if the realignment plan has any chance of taking off,” the Labor official said.

Olmert has been cagey about the timetable for the West Bank withdrawal, saying only that he wants it under way during his four-year term. But his sense of vision suffered another blow Sunday when Giora Eiland, who stepped down as national security adviser last week, lambasted government planning.

“The disengagement simply said the occupation was bad, that there is no chance for an accord so long as there is occupation, and therefore let’s narrow the occupation,” Eiland told Ha’aretz, using the official term for last year’s Gaza Strip withdrawal. “The same is said by the realignment.”

Eiland’s misgivings appeared to be rooted in his belief that the classic concept of a two-state peace accord with the Palestinians is impossible.

“There is not enough space to contain two states” in what is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, he said.

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