Ehud Olmert is in a hurry. Call it bicycle politics: If he goes too slow, he’s likely to fall.
Even as he tries to patch together a ruling coalition, Israel’s prime minister-designate has said that he plans to carry out a second disengagement — this time from a large swath of the West Bank — in as little as a year and a half. That tight timetable for such an ambitious move reflects two pressures on Olmert: U.S.-Israel relations and his peculiar political weakness.
The promise of a new withdrawal was the center of Olmert’s election campaign as head of the new Kadima party. Olmert has spoken of drawing new borders that keep the largest West Bank settlements on Israel’s side while putting most Palestinians on the other. That apparently would require evacuating about a third of the 250,000 Israelis living in the West Bank — an operation 10 times the size of last summer’s Gaza pullout.
In initial, failed coalition contacts between Kadima and the Likud, Kadima representatives reportedly said the pullback would take place while George W. Bush was still president. Afterward, in an April 12 interview in The Wall Street Journal, Olmert moved up the goal, saying he would carry out the withdrawal within 18 months. To seek American support, he said, he would travel to Washington in the coming weeks.
The simplest explanation is that Olmert regards Bush as critical to his plan because of the president’s hands-off approach to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. The Bush administration has announced diplomatic initiatives — starting with the president’s June 2002 speech on a two-state solution and followed by the next year’s “road map” plan. But Bush has put little diplomatic muscle into pushing either Israelis or Palestinians to follow that map.
However, Bush did endorse Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. And in an April 2004 letter to the then-prime minister, Bush said that “existing major Israeli populations centers” made it “unrealistic” to expect a return to the pre-1967 Green Line border between Israel and the West Bank. In other words, the largest settlements could stay put.
Bush’s reluctance to push hard for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations stands in stark contrast to the activism of his father and of Bill Clinton. The current administration clearly has had other overseas priorities. Given the ultra-hawkish Middle East views of Bush’s evangelical base, it is also easier to let Israel initiate any concessions than to make Washington seem responsible.
Bush’s approach is ideal for Olmert. Since Olmert’s dramatic political conversion two-and-a-half years ago, when he declared that Israel needed to give up land to preserve its Jewish majority, he has favored unilateralism: Israel would draw its own borders, retain major settlements such as Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel, and count on America for international backing.
Given the rising criticism Bush faces at home over his foreign policy record, there’s no reason for Olmert to expect continuity under the next president, especially when it comes to the Middle East. From Olmert’s perspective, therefore, it makes more sense to reshape the border quickly.
The domestic Israeli reasons for moving fast are even stronger. As a referendum on giving up West Bank land, the March 28 election provided clear results. Parties from Kadima leftward got 70 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.
Yet Kadima itself won only 29 seats, less than half of what is needed for a parliamentary majority. That will make Olmert’s “ruling” party a weak base for a coalition that must include several parties and can easily come undone.
Kadima itself may have a short half-life. The party was established only last fall, and its Knesset ticket included defectors from a variety of political camps — from former Laborite Shimon Peres to ex-settler leader Otniel Schneller. In Israeli history, such centrist parties have been afflicted by defections, splits and rapid demise.
To cope with those challenges, Olmert appears eager to maintain maximum momentum, moving ahead with the next disengagement while the memory of the election is fresh and his party is still cohesive.
First, though, he has to put together a coalition. Since he has shown no interest in recruiting the Arab-based parties, which won 10 Knesset members, he must look for parties to his right. That fits conventional political wisdom, which calls for a prime minister to play off partners from both sides.
But such logic leads to another problem — whose name is Avigdor Lieberman. The burly, round-faced, 47-year-old Lieberman heads Yisrael Beitenu, a party of the hard right that leaped from three seats to 11 seats in the March election.
The Moldovan-born Lieberman moved to Israel in 1978, became a Likud activist and briefly served as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office under Benjamin Netanyahu. After the two fell out, Lieberman started his own party, appealing mainly to Russian-speaking immigrants. For several years, the party was allied in parliament with the settler-based, far-right National Union.
A resident of Nokdim in the West Bank, Lieberman was convicted in 2001 of assaulting a 12-year-old boy from another settlement who’d beaten his son. The State Prosecutor’s Office is currently weighing the results of a police investigation into allegations of dealings with Russian organized crime and of campaign finance violations. Lieberman says he’s a victim of persecution. He also says the country is rife with crime, and he ran this year on a law-and-order platform, demanding his own appointment as minister of internal security — in charge of the police.
But there’s a twist: Despite his far-right record, Lieberman has been arguing for the past two years that Israel must cede land to maintain a Jewish majority. In his version, the land to be given up would include Israeli Arab towns near the Green Line. Initially, he reportedly spoke of “population exchange” of Arab citizens of Israel to the new Palestinian state. With just a touch more subtlety, his recent campaign platform called for a loyalty oath as a condition for Israeli citizenship.
Thus, while the center and left seek to end Israeli rule over West Bank Palestinians, Lieberman’s platform would effectively disenfranchise Arab citizens of Israel. Arguably, the terms “left” and “right” are being transformed — now referring more to one’s stance toward Arabs’ rights as citizens than toward holding the territories.
As a practical program, Lieberman’s proposals fall apart at first examination. A recent analysis by the Floersheimer Institute for Policy Studies, a Jerusalem think tank, shows that Israeli Supreme Court precedent would not allow revoking Arabs’ citizenship against their will.
For campaign purposes, though, his jingoist stance clearly played to the prejudices and fears of some voters. As Ben-Gurion University political sociologist Lev Grinberg notes, it identified “Jews as the owners of the country” and “Arabs as the enemy even within the state.” Subtly, it also affirmed the ethnic Jewish identity of those former Soviet immigrants who are not Jews under religious law.
As a rightist party willing to cede land, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu has been treated by Kadima as a potential coalition partner. Early this week, though, Kadima was concentrating on first reaching agreement with Labor, whose 19 Knesset seats make it the second-largest party and a nearly essential piece of any ruling coalition. According to Labor leader Amir Peretz’s spokesman, Tom Wegner, Labor would not blackball Lieberman, but would push for him to “renounce a program that includes elements of transfer.” The objection, he said, was “not personal, but ideological.”
If Labor and Yisrael Beitenu do end up in the same coalition, the partnership is sure to be built on suspicion. Olmert does have other ways to build a majority — for instance, by including the two ultra-Orthodox parties. That, too, would be a fragile alliance. With a mandate for withdrawal but not for a stable coalition, Olmert apparently believes that his only choice is to try to carry out his program as fast as he can.