- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 12, 2006

This much is clear about Israel’s March 28 national election: It is acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s race to lose. Mr. Olmert, who became head of state following Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Jan. 4 stroke, is the first person to run for prime minister as head of the new Kadima Party formed by Mr. Sharon in November.

Mr. Olmert had been a senior member of Likud, the hawkish party formed by Mr. Sharon in 1973 which pushed to expand settlements and dominated Israeli politics during the following three decades. But in November, Mr. Olmert (who, like Mr. Sharon, concluded that it was no longer possible for Israel to maintain control of the West Bank and remain Jewish and democratic) joined his mentor in forming Kadima. The new party was founded on the premise that because Israel has no serious negotiating partner on the Palestinian side, Israel will have to unilaterally determine its future borders with the Palestinians. Part one of this strategy occurred with last summer’s withdrawal of Jewish settlements and Israeli military forces from Gaza.

The next step will be determining the extent of Israel’s pullout from the West Bank. While many specific details of how Mr. Olmert proposes to do this have yet to be determined, broad outlines of the plan are known.

By 2010, Israel would withdraw from most of the West Bank and would demarcate a new border somewhere east of the separation fence that has helped bring about a sharp decline in suicide attacks over the past four years. Israel would consolidate remaining settlements into so-called “blocs” near Jerusalem and other strategic areas (including the Etzion Bloc near Hebron) and would make the Jordan River Israel’s “security border” — presumably entailing some sort of military presence there to deter an attack from the east.

In the absence of a functioning Palestinian government that recognizes Israel’s right to exist and is prepared to engage in serious negotiations with the Jewish state, Israel would retain effective military control over those areas of the West Bank that it relinquishes. The principal effect of Mr. Olmert’s plan would be to require the removal of Jewish civilians east of the separation fence.

The most intense opposition to Mr. Olmert’s plan comes from the Likud Party, now headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which insists that any territorial withdrawals be negotiated with the Palestinians; since the Palestinian Authority is currently headed by Hamas, a terrorist group that opposes any coexistence with Israel, Likud contends that territorial withdrawals are a sign of weakness.

From the left, Mr. Olmert is opposed by the Labor Party, which has never recovered from the collapse of the Oslo “peace process” in the fall of 2000. Labor’s new leader is longtime union chief Amir Peretz, a left-wing economic populist whose positions on security issues are largely unknown. But he has surrounded himself with a number of former Israeli security officials such as former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon, who speaks openly of the number of Arabs he has killed on the battlefield.

Right now, polls show Mr. Olmert’s Kadima party winning roughly 35 seats in the 120-member Knesset, with Labor winning 18 to 20 and Likud winning between 15 and 18. Of the remaining 45 to 50 seats, the strongest prospects look to be Russian and religious-oriented parties that lean to the right on security issues.

If Kadima wins close to 40 seats, Mr. Olmert is in a strong position to choose a governing partner; it would not come as a great surprise to see him lean to the left in order to form a government with Labor that would dismantle settlements. On the other hand, should Labor falter and Likud gain strength, Mr. Olmert may have no choice but to form a government with Mr. Netanyahu — a former Likud ally turned bitter political rival. Regardless of what happens on March 28, don’t be surprised if the rise of malevolent Islamist forces such as Iran and Hamas pushes the Israeli electorate rightward in the near future.

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