Israel's Unsettling Coalition
Come Thursday, Israel is expected to swear in a new government and the world will begin to learn what exactly Prime Minister Ehud Olmert means by "convergence."
"Convergence" is the word Olmert used during the Israeli election campaign to describe the plans of his Kadima Party to abandon some Jewish settlements in the West Bank in order to improve overall Israeli security. Like "Kadima," which means "Forward" in Hebrew, convergence implies a progression or advance. But the move certainly involves a massive withdrawal from areas that have long been claimed by Jewish settlers and turning them over to Palestinians who say any such moves should be mutually agreed upon.
The idea is supported by the Labor Party, which finished second to Kadima in the March 28 elections. Labor leader Amir Peretz is slated to become defense minister in Olmert's government.
The plan hasn't been as well received in the Arab press, who see an Israeli power play to weaken the Palestinian ability to govern themselves.
"The plan is already well advanced," wrote Graham Usher in Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly. "The election of a Hamas-led government -- and the dysfunction this has caused in the Palestinian Authority -- merely accelerated the process.
"Following the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on 17 April, Olmert did not order a frontal assault on the PA -- despite Hamas's support for the attack. He tightened the financial noose on the authority and proceeded with separation. Israeli banks were told not to lend to their Palestinian counterparts, 'one more notch in collapsing the Palestinian economy,' said Palestinian analyst, Sam Bahour."
But Olmert's Israeli supporters see a window of opportunity.
"Olmert must act quickly and decisively," writes Aluf Benn of the liberal Haaretz. "The right was beaten in the elections, the settlers are still isolated, the level of terror is low."
Benn says that Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel and its endorsement of the Tel Aviv attack "assist Israeli public relations ... It is hard to imagine more convenient political conditions for Olmert's convergence plan."
One potential obstacle: "The United States will not recognize a border created after a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank as Israel's permanent border," according to Haaretz.
For the editors of the Jerusalem Post, Washington's objections must be overcome.
The conservative daily said Olmert's convergence plans should be "conditioned on -- not just vaguely linked to -- international recognition of borders that Israel has, for lack of a non-terrorist negotiating partner, been forced to establish unilaterally."
Even with such recognition, the JP says, "it may be a challenge for the government to make the case for evacuating thousands of Israelis from their homes in Judea and Samaria against their will, and an immense challenge for Israeli society to absorb. Without such a tangible benefit, implementing convergence will likely be both unwise and impossible."
For some perspective, I spoke with Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli journalist and author of a new book on the history of Israeli settlements, "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977" (Times Books).
WOR: You call the settlements an "accidental empire" Is Israel's new government going to dismantle that empire? Or continue to entrench it?
Gorenberg: The answer to that question is yes. Olmert's plan is to dismantle a significant portion of the settlements at the same time that Israel continues to entrench other settlements closer to the pre-1967 border. The reason is I see Olmert's election as positive is that the entrenching is nothing new. The dismantling is new. The momentum has changed direction.
WOR: The withdrawal from Gaza last year went relatively smoothly, but it certainly polarized Israeli public opinion. Now Olmert is proposing a much more bigger pullout from the West Bank, no?
Gorenberg: Olmert has made statements about what he wants to do but he hasn't drawn a map. It is safe to say the areas that he might want to pull out of are home to several tens of thousands of Israelis, as compared to the 9,000 people in Gaza. And these are places that occupy a much more emotional and ideological place in the minds of Israelis than Gaza.
WOR: Hamas claimed the Gaza pullout as a victory, the result of their armed resistance. Won't the Hamas government claim the same about a West Bank withdrawal?
Gorenberg: That is one of the major problems with a unilateral pullout. It could convince people on the Palestinian side that what they euphemistically call 'armed struggle' works. It could strengthen extreme elements. A negotiated pullout could have the opposite effect.
WOR: So what can Olmert do?
Gorenberg: People have invested their lives--and the meaning of the lives--in settling in the territories. Olmert's challenge is within Israel: to reduce and control the opposition to withdrawal without making people feel like their lives are being delegitimized.
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