- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2006

When he meets with President Bush on Tuesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be seeking Washington’s support for his “convergence” plan, which would remove Israeli civilians from as much as 92 percent of the West Bank. By 2010, Mr. Olmert seeks to remove approximately 60,000 Israelis living in settlements located to the east of Israel’s security fence. This group would be relocated to Israeli “settlement blocs” that are adjacent to the Green Line (the 1949 Armistice Line).

By any measure, Mr. Olmert is taking an extraordinary political gamble, one going well beyond that taken by his predecessor and mentor, Ariel Sharon, in withdrawing from Gaza last year. In Mr. Olmert’s view, Israel cannot retain the West Bank, home to more than 1 million Palestinians, and remain a democratic, Jewish state. In the absence of a viable Palestinian negotiating partner, Mr. Olmert believes that he needs to withdraw from the territory unilaterally.

In the March 28 elections, the anti-withdrawal right lost roughly 20 seats, emerging with approximately 50 seats in the 120-member Knesset. The center-left (broadly speaking, defined as Kadima, as well as Labor and parties on the political left that favor further Israeli territorial withdrawals), was the winner. To be sure, a leftish form of economic populism helped the Labor Party, among others, gain political strength. But Mr. Olmert, the prohibitive favorite, made support for convergence the centerpiece of his campaign, and voters for smaller left-of-center parties surely realized that the elections were in large part a referendum on Kadima’s No. 1 issue: substantial territorial withdrawals from the West Bank.

In the near future (although not necessarily on this visit), Mr. Olmert is likely to seek the following: 1) U.S. help in achieving some form of international recognition that the 193,000 Israelis living in settlements (virtually all of them adjacent to the Green Line) are citizens of Israel rather than persons living on “occupied territory”; and 2) some financial help in carrying out the withdrawal.

On the first point, Mr. Olmert wants to be able to simultaneously tell the international community that Israel has relinquished most of the Arab territory captured in 1967 (all of Gaza and the overwhelming majority of the West Bank) and tell Israelis that he won international legitimacy for the status of the vast majority of settlers. But even if Mr. Olmert wins U.S. recognition of these settlements and settlers, it is doubtful that he will obtain such recognition from the European Union or the United Nations in the absence of a final settlement with the Palestinians, in which explosive issues such as refugees and Jerusalem are resolved. Indeed, the Security Council did not even bother to pass a resolution verifying Israel’s withdraw from Gaza last year.

And U.S. financial support for a West Bank withdrawal is problematic to say the least. Last year, there were discussions that Israel would receive $1 billion in U.S. assistance for the Gaza pullout, but in the end that aid was never considered due to Hurricane Katrina. Israeli estimates have placed the total cost of implementing a West Bank withdrawal at between $10 billion and $25 billion.

By far the major obstacle right now to the implementation of Mr. Olmert’s unilateralist vision is the rapidly deteriorating situation in Gaza and the danger of replicating it in the West Bank. Since Israel pulled out of Gaza, terrorists based there have fired 500 rockets at the Jewish state. Security has collapsed on the Gaza-Egyptian border, permitting terrorists and weapons to cross the border unimpeded.

On a daily basis, Israelis are deluged with reports of kidnappings, and of Hezbollah and al Qaeda operatives and a slew of Palestinian terrorist organizations training there, armed groups storming ministries and Fatah-Hamas warfare in the streets. For Israelis, including many who support Mr. Olmert’s concept of relinquishing some settlements, there is a deep reluctance to cede additional territory in the West Bank right now. This is particularly true in view of reports that Hamas and al Qaeda continue their efforts to establish bases on the West Bank — a development that would not only threaten Israel but Jordan — which has become a prime jihadist target as well.

Many of the same dark Islamofascist forces that have blocked a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace are doing their level best to sabotage Mr. Olmert’s unilateralist efforts as well.


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