As Ehud Olmert takes the office of prime minister in his own right this week with a coalition government ready to implement his withdrawal from much of the West Bank, debate is rising over the wisdom of such a move and his selection of ministers.
"This government is very weak and in trouble before it is even sworn in," observed Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
He pointed out that Olmert has said his "convergence" plan to withdraw settlers behind internationally accepted permanent borders would be carried out unilaterally if he was unable to find a Palestinian government prepared to negotiate peace. But that was predicated upon American acceptance of such borders, something the Bush administration has reportedly ruled out, Haaretz reported last week.
Olmert is expected to fly to Washington later this month for talks with President George W. Bush at the White House, tentatively scheduled for May 22. "What is Olmert going to come back with?" Steinberg asked. "He will be compared with [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon in terms of body language and the declarations that are made. He has to come back with something."
Olmert is scheduled to return immediately to Israel to participate in celebrations later that week marking the reunification of Jerusalem. But Steinberg said a trip to New York to visit Jewish leaders here would have been important so that the new prime minister could shore up his support with American Jewish leaders. Maariv columnist Ben Kaspit pointed out that Olmert was taking office "with at least three senior Kadima members plotting against him and another five swearing revenge."
Dissatisfaction within Kadima, the party Olmert helped to create late last year with Sharon, was evidenced by the very public resignation of Uriel Reichman from public life. Reichman said he had been promised the post of Education Minister, but it was one of seven cabinet posts given to the Labor Party in return for it joining the coalition government.
Also expressing disgust was Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, whose portfolio was given to Labor Party leader Amir Peretz despite the complaints of Mofaz and others that Peretz has no security background. Mofaz was given a lesser portfolio, that of transportation minister and deputy prime minister.
And former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who is No. 2 on the Kadima list of candidates and was reappointed minister for Negev and Galilee development and regional economic ties, reportedly complained that Olmert had given away too many jobs in building his coalition of 67 seats with Labor, the Pensioner’s Party and Shas. And the newspaper Yediot Achronot pointed out that public opinion polls found 51 percent of Israelis dissatisfied with Olmert already and 63 percent dissatisfied with Peretz. The paper said Olmert’s policies "could be hindered from the outset by a dissatisfied state which feels the government is setting off on the wrong foot."
Olmert will also have to contend with the 70,000 West Bank settlers who would have to move under the convergence plan. The cabinet Sunday modified the route of the security barrier now under construction (about half has been built) so that it encompasses less West Bank land. It will now resemble two long, narrow fingers jutting into the West Bank, with one of the fingers incorporating Ariel, a community of nearly 20,000 that is more than 12 miles inside the West Bank. In all, Israel would retain about 10 percent of the West Bank.
Ahuva Shilo, the spokesperson for the Shomron Regional Council in the West Bank, questioned the reason for the security barriers jutting into the West Bank "if they are not going to annex the fingers to Israel."
"He wants to create a Palestinian homeland and they need a free way to go from Ramallah to Nablus and Tulkarem," she added. "The Jews will be between fences and the Arabs will move about freely. Fencing in the Jews. Do you understand the mentality of Jews to live in between a fence? It’s like living in a ghetto. It’s very sad. And you know that the fence will be very near the last house in the settlement, so they are going to strangle the settlements."
Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general here, said no decision had been made about whether to annex the seven settlement clusters containing 230,000 Jews into which Olmert plans to move the settlers who live outside those clusters. "That is a matter of international law and nobody has gotten that far," he said. "Right now, the issue is how you protect Jews from terror. You do it in an effective way by separating Jews from Arabs with a fence."
Steven Spiegel, a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, pointed out that Olmert has enough political support (both from within and outside his coalition) to carry out the West Bank withdrawal. But he pointed out that Olmert will not be able to implement that withdrawal until the security barrier is completed next year.
"They will probably be offering sweet [financial and housing] packages to those who reside east of the fence" to encourage them to move, said Spiegel, a political science professor at the University of California in Los Angeles. "So there is plenty of time to see if Hamas survives and if it survives, what happens."
Hamas, the Palestinian governing body, has refused demands by the international community to recognize Israel, renounce violence and recognize prior Palestinian agreements with Israel. That has cost it financial support from much of the world, although the Arab League said this week that it would send $70 million straight into the bank accounts of 160,000 Palestinian civil servants. They have missed their March and April paychecks, totaling about $240 million. But at midweek it was unclear whether the direct deposit idea would work because banks have been reluctant to transfer money to Palestinian government accounts, fearing sanctions from the United States, which along with the European Union and Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organization. There were reports this week that Israel’s Shin Bet, the top domestic security service, had learned that a senior Hamas official gave orders to the Popular Resistance Committees to carry out a terrorist attack last week at a Gaza crossing. Security forces of the Palestinian Authority thwarted the attack.
A report this week by Israel’s Center for Special Studies found that Hamas has "subcontracted" terrorist activities to the Popular Resistance Committees so that it could continue to publicly insist that it is abiding by its self-imposed policy of restraint, according to the WorldNet Daily.
Against this backdrop, neighboring Arab countries (particularly Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) are now likely to launch a new initiative to "energize the peace process," according to Shibley Telhami, who holds the Sadat Chair at the University of Maryland.
If they do this, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would "jump on it, the Europeans would encourage it, Israel would have to think about it and Hamas, to keep relations with the others on good terms, would have to take a position that would not foreclose it," he said. "So we cannot foreclose the possibility of a diplomatic initiative."
"When you look at practicalities from a humanitarian and security point of view, it is complex and people will be looking for alternatives," Telhami added. "[Suggestions] are not going to come from Hamas. Hamas will be put in a position where it will have to act."
He said one approach the Arab countries might push would be to get Hamas to agree to some version of the Saudi peace plan that was adopted by Arab leaders in Beirut in 2002. It offers "normal relations" with Israel and full peace with Arab states if Israel withdraws to its 1967 border, agreed to a "fair solution" to the Palestinian refugee issue based on UN resolutions, and the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
A Hamas official said this week that Hamas would consider the plan if Israel first accepted it. David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it is typical of Hamas to "shift the onus" and that he does not believe Hamas will ever compromise.
"I am not optimistic that we are going to see any major strides by Hamas to recognize Israel," he said. "We could see tactical moves by them to deflect international pressure. … [But] the raisone d’etre of Hamas calls for Israel’s destruction, and we have to be careful before we predict that Hamas is on the road to moderation."
Alon Ben-Meir, director of the Middle East Project at the World Policy Institute in Manhattan, said he returned from Turkey this week where there are efforts to "try to get something moving with Hamas as soon as possible. … The most important thing is a comprehensive cessation of violence. That is what we are working on right now."
He declined to say who else was involved in this effort.