A realistic look at the coming Olmert years

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Before remarking on the meaning of Israel’s March 28 elections for Israeli-Palestinian relations, it behooves us to recall why Israel has such frequent elections, yet can’t install a government capable of resolving the Palestinian issue. The reasons are both Israeli and Palestinian in substance.
At the Israeli domestic level, every Israeli government since 1988 has been brought down by internal politics that hinge on the Palestinian issue. No Israeli government has taken more than one significant step toward dealing with this issue without collapsing under the weight of its own coalition contradictions. Such is the nature of the Israeli political system, and Israeli politics in general, that coalitions tend to be complex multi-party and sector-based partnerships that paper over serious differences of political philosophy on a number of domestic and international issues, until confrontation with a controversial decision related to the Palestinians brings them down. This was the fate of the Shamir government that went to Madrid, the Rabin-Peres government that signed Oslo, the Netanyahu government that returned from Wye, Barak after Camp David, and no fewer than three Sharon coalitions in five years.

Prime Minister-designate Ehud Olmert’s anticipated coalition will almost certainly suffer the same fate. The 29 mandates of his own party, Kadima, representing just under one-fourth of the electorate, are not sufficient to sustain a stable coalition for the long haul, particularly in view of the party’s inbuilt diversity of views regarding the Palestinian issue (Haim Ramon and Tzachi HaNegbi? Shimon Peres and Shaul Mofaz?). Labor, Kadima’s principal potential coalition partner, has more confidence than Olmert in negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), and places higher priority on a renewed attempt at a peace process.

Additional coalition partners such as Shas have traditionally backed out of coalitions that move toward accommodation with the Palestinians. If Avigdor Leiberman joins the coalition, he may insist on "Um al-Fahm first". Tensions with Kadima over the welfare-state demands of Labor, Shas and the Pensioners’ Party could destabilize the coalition. Olmert himself is completely untried as a national leader and has a hard act (Sharon) to follow. In short, Olmert and his prospective coalition partners have the clearest electoral mandate yet to end the occupation, but the system still won’t cooperate.

Turning to the Palestinians, Abu Mazen is a doubtful peace partner, just as Yasser Arafat before him turned out to be an impossible peace partner. The Camp David and Taba negotiations of 2000-2001 demonstrated that the most accommodating Israelis and Palestinians are too far apart on the issues of the right of return and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and Old City to resolve the conflict. Since that time, Palestinian suicide bombings have stiffened Israeli resolve on these issues. The rise of Hamas to power in Palestine renders yet more doubtful the wisdom of seeking agreement with Abu Mazen, now a lame-duck president. Taken together with the gathering clouds of chaos and extremism to the east of Jordan, the most moderate Israeli government will respond by insisting on a long-term security presence in the Jordan Valley.

Olmert will almost certainly now be obliged by his Labor partners, and possibly by international pressures, to attempt another round of negotiations, presumably with Abu Mazen. Only when this fails will he turn to "convergence", i.e., dismantling additional settlements. Under the best of circumstances, the nature of his coalition and the built-in constraints in his own party will probably afford him breathing space for one "round", one accomplishment, before Israel is plunged back into early elections. That means the initiation of a major withdrawal of tens of thousands of West Bank settlers: initiation, because the cost and logistics of removing so many settlers guarantee that the project will take far more years to complete than Olmert’s coalition can survive.

A yet more sober scenario for the coming Olmert years might also include an ending of the tahdiya (lull) due to acts of terrorism condoned or even encouraged by Hamas, and another round of violence, this time possibly involving friends of Hamas like Hizballah, Syria and Iran. Not surprisingly, Olmert may have an easier time holding together a broad coalition under conditions of conflict.

One way or another, the most we can probably expect from the incoming government with regard to the Palestinian issue is low-level contacts with Hamas to ensure that Palestine is not plunged into a humanitarian crisis, along with the beginnings of another round of settlement dismantlement on the West Bank and completion of the security fence along an increasingly rational path–all with Washington’s blessings. Under current conditions of conflict management rather than conflict resolution and in view of Hamas’ rise to power in Palestine, this would be no mean accomplishment in terms of maintaining a strong, democratic and Jewish Israel and keeping open the option of a two-state solution.

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