Can Olmert Withdraw By ’08?
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Can Olmert Withdraw By ’08?

Even though Prime Minister-designate Olmert this week advanced by two years to 2008 the date for the withdrawal of about 70,000 Israeli settlers from much of the West Bank (thereby clearing the way for a Palestinian state on contiguous land) many Israeli observers questioned whether he could carry it out.

"The odds are against that he would be able to do it in that period of time," said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. But he said it was "logical" that Olmert would seek to accomplish the move by the end of 2008 while George W. Bush was still in the White House.

"There is a lot of uncertainty as to U.S. policy after the Bush administration," Steinberg said. "This administration has accepted the concept of disengagement, and this [Olmert] government appears weak and may not last more than two years."

Stephen P. Cohen, a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, said it would be a "remarkable achievement for a first term prime minister to be able to do that much."

"The question is whether he would pull out all the stops to do it?" he said. "Will he decide he is trying to bite off too much?"

Olmert has made it clear that before he begins evacuating settlers, he plans to hold extensive talks with them in an attempt to reach an understanding that would avoid the bitterness and violence that punctuated the evacuation of settlers from the illegal West Bank outpost of Amona in February.

But as Uzi Benziman wrote this week in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Olmert must make sure he is "not swept into accepting dictates from the settlers … who have been in a rebellious mood for the last seven months" since the forced evacuation of the Gaza Strip.

"The settlers have reached that point in time where they also must realize their role is over," he wrote. "Their status as the most precious offspring of the Israeli establishment has been turned into something else: the accepted convention that they are actually a bone in its throat."

In an interview last week with Time magazine, Olmert said he would seek to coordinate the withdrawal with Bush, whom he is expected to visit next month after he cobbles together his new coalition government. He said he believes the withdrawal can be done because of the "trust and understanding we have for each other." Olmert said also that among the settlers he believed there is a "significant group that understand that the time has come for us to redraw the lines [of Israel’s borders]. If we handle it with sufficient sensitivity, I believe we can avoid unnecessary eruptions of emotional reactions."

Under Olmert’s plan, many of the settlers would be offered the chance to move to within three major blocs of settlements in which about two-thirds of Israel’s 250,000 West Bank settlers reside. He has made it clear that no Israeli citizen would be allowed to live outside the security barrier Israel is still constructing, a barrier he said would become Israel’s internationally recognized border and that would ensure Israel retains a Jewish majority.

Although Olmert has not mapped out the route of the barrier, he told the Wall Street Journal that Israel would not share political control of Jerusalem with a Palestinian state. But he left open the possibility that some surrounding Arab neighborhoods could eventually fall under Palestinian sovereignty. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as their capital. "Dividing Jerusalem will not bring peace, only more fighting," Olmert insisted.

Although Olmert would prefer that Israel’s borders were set through negotiations with Palestinians rather than unilaterally, he maintained again this week that Israel would never negotiate with Hamas, which the international community views as a terrorist organization. Hamas this month assumed control of the Palestinian Authority following its upset win at the polls in January. It has refused the international community’s demands that it recognize Israel, renounce violence and honor prior Israeli-Palestinian agreements, actions Israel said are needed before negotiations can begin. This week Hamas said it viewed Olmert’s plan to unilaterally set its borders as a "declaration of war."

Although Hamas has maintained a self-imposed ceasefire, other terrorist groups have increased their attacks against Israel in the last week, firing 10 rockets from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel last weekend alone. No Israelis were wounded, but Israel struck back with a vengeance, killing 16 Palestinians in the last few days, at least 13 of whom were known to be terrorists.

Olmert (who was to become interim prime minister at the end of this week after the cabinet declared Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "permanently incapacitated" by the Jan. 4 stroke that left him in a deep coma) is seeking not only America’s support but money. Ami Pedahzur, an associate professor at the University of Texas in Austin, said "without American support for such a move, I don’t know how they will pay for it."

"We’re not just talking about dismantling settlements, but relocating people and finding them jobs and new homes," he stressed. "And real estate within the Green Line [Israel’s pre-1967 border] is far more expensive" than land in the West Bank.

Alon Ben-Meir, the Middle East project director at the World Policy Institute here, insisted that despite the skepticism surrounding the speed of Olmert’s evacuation plan, he believes it is "definitely possible."

"He has about a year to plan it carefully, which is ample time," he said. "And then he could move them in groups over the following year and a half."

Citing the cost of moving 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, Ben-Meir said this move would cost about 40 billion shekels or about $10 billion.

"I think a big part of the cost will come from the United States in a number of forms: loan guarantees, outright assistance and money that would be raised from contributions from Jews and non-Jews," he said. "I think there will be a special fundraising campaign here, run by Israel Bonds or the United Jewish Appeal. They are the organizations that handle this kind of money."

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