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With Hezbollah War in Mind, Olmert Takes Pullout off Agenda

September 5, 2006
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Ehud Olmert is reconsidering his West Bank withdrawal plan. The Israeli prime minister announced Sunday that his proposal for selective West Bank withdrawals is “not on the agenda for now,” raising hope among rightists and leftists alike.

Olmert told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee: “What I thought several months ago would be the right thing to do on the Palestinian front has now changed.

“I must assess reality, not because I made a mistake, but because you must reassess priorities when they have changed,” he said. “We have no intention of running away from the Palestinian issue. We cannot afford to do so. We must deal with the Palestinian issue, but consider other ways of doing so.”

Cast as a stopgap measure in the absence of peace with the Palestinians, the “realignment plan” helped bring Olmert to power in May. But events have since undermined the idea.

There was the resurgence of fighting around the Gaza Strip, which Israel had quit last year in a bid to forestall violence. Cross-border rocket fire was stepped up, ignored or abetted by the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government. A soldier was abducted by Gaza gunmen, among them members of Hamas.

Then there was the bloody, monthlong war against Hezbollah, a Shi’ite militia that many analysts believe was bolstered by Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. That conflict, triggered by Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two soldiers on the Lebanese border, ended with a Aug. 14 cease-fire. The hostages have yet to be recovered.

“The notion of trading territory for peace was successful in two instances — Egypt and Jordan. It failed in two other cases — Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority,” Israel’s deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres, wrote in Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

“The initiative to withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank has lost its attraction in the eyes of the Israeli public due to the aftereffects of withdrawal from the Gaza Strip,” Peres added. “I cannot envisage a situation today in which the majority of Israelis will support such a withdrawal.”

Many on Israel’s left, including even some members of the Labor Party that is the junior partner in Olmert’s government, long opposed unilateralism on territorial issues, fearing that it spurred the radical elements of Palestinian society. This was echoed by some on the Israeli right, many of whom also distrusted the perceived moderation of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“It seems that Olmert has repented,” said Limor Livnat of the Likud Party, which heads the political opposition.

Just what Olmert plans to do now, with his centerpiece plan shelved, remains in doubt. The most immediate option is to adopt an economic platform, especially when it comes to areas of northern Israel battered by thousands of Hezbollah rockets.

Analysts say the war cost Israel around $5.3 billion, and there are the added hefty expenses of rehabilitating the defense establishment. Israel’s military and intelligence services are widely seen as having tackled Hezbollah poorly. With wars potentially looming against Syria and a nuclear-armed Iran, Israelis want to know all steps are being taken to protect them.

With his popularity sapped and Defense Minister Amir Peretz facing challenges from within his Labor Party, Olmert must also deal with the prospect of his government collapsing. That means reaching out to right-wing factions that could potentially join the coalition. These factions would be encouraged by the news that the West Bank plan is on hold, but would likely demand it be scrapped altogether.

Peres proposed that Israel turn its economic plans into an alternative peacemaking platform.

“We were prepared to enter into bilateral negotiations on the basis of the road map, but to date Hamas has prevented the Palestinian side from following through,” he wrote.

“An alternative could take the form of a partnership involving Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians, following an economic route rather than a political one.”

Peres proposed that the sides build on a deal already in place to turn the border region linking the Red Sea and Jordan River, via the West Bank, into a trading zone.

“This approach has worked elsewhere; most of the important changes that have occurred around the globe since the end of the second world war have been the outcome not of military interventions but of economic advances,” he wrote, adding that expanded trade zones would attract international investment and goodwill.

“If we can privatize part of the economy, why not privatize part of peace?”

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