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FORWARD TO WITHDRAWAL?

Kadima & Labor Sign Coalition Pact That Envisages Unilateral Withdrawal Plan If No Palestinian Peace

However, U.S. Signals It Will Not Support Olmert's Unilateral Plan To Determine Final West Bank Border

Olmert & Peretz (archive)

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be on his way to forming a commanding coalition majority but his key foreign policy goal of a unilateral withdrawal on the West Bank may soon peter out. After Kadima (Forward) and Labor signed a coalition agreement, Olmert is now expected to wrap up similar accords with other parties to build the required majority in Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

The composition of the new Kadima led government may be the consequence of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza pullout, but Ehud Olmert's unilateral withdrawal on the West Bank is open to question.

Kadima and Labor have tied the knot but there are many open questions about a unilateral withdrawal on the West Bank during their term in office. With the Pensioners already on board, Prime Minister designate Olmert already has 55 seats on the way to the magical 61 majority in the 120 member Knesset. With the ultra-orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism about to join, the coalition will muster over 70 mandates. After Avigdor Lieberman's far right party apparently dropped out, even left-wing Meretz is being courted by Kadima. Only time will tell if this is a ploy to pressure Lieberman by using Meretz as a stalking horse. But how come Olmert is able to explore both on the far left and the far right in his coalition quest? It is the result of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's taking over the center by implementing last summer's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West bank settlements. But there is a world of difference between going it alone and pulling back to the old '67 border with Gaza and a unilateral evacuation to a new defense line on the West Bank that would demarcate permanent borders. Olmert has pledged to do this, if there is no Palestinian peace partner. Israel would then consolidate this move by building inside the new line on the West Bank. Jerusalem requires Washington's backing the way Sharon did in Gaza. But this week the Haaretz newspaper quoted American officials as saying they would support a pullout but would not view the new line as a permanent Israeli border. In other words the U.S. seems to be saying: 'If Israel wants to carry out a partial withdrawal on the West Bank that's up to you, but it won't obligate us on final borders that will still have to be negotiated with the Palestinians'.

IsraCast on March 28th reported that it was highly unlikely the U.S. would support Olmert's unilateral West Bank plan. Even if it wanted to, there are America's global considerations. Surely the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is part and parcel of the bigger Middle East picture and the first consideration of the Bush Administration is how to exit Iraq without losing face. In order to do so, the U.S. wants and needs the support of the Arab world and the Europeans. However, they are vehemently opposed to Olmert's scheme. So would American backing for Olmert's grand design help or hinder Bush get out of Iraq? After he forms his new cabinet, Olmert is set to visit Washington where the U.S. President will likely tell him that only the Roadmap can resolve the border question and forget about pulling back and building within a new defense line on the West Bank. Like the Americans in Iraq, Israelis should be ready to grin and bear it and try to bolster Palestinian 'moderates' like Abbas visvis Hamas. One former senior Israeli official quotes Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as saying that if Olmert persisted with his plan it could cause a ' riff ' with Washington. Olmert's future climb-down could be based on his position that the plan must be coordinated with the U.S. and receive international support. But by then, the new PM will be home safe and able to stabilize his government with apparently no viable Palestinian peace partner in sight.

Palestinian Standoff: In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian gang leader Jamal Samhadana is moving full steam ahead in forming his new police force. This, in defiance of President Mahmoud Abbas, who was touring Scandinavian countries trying to gain support for a Hamas government that pledges to destroy Israel.

Back home, the daily clashes continued between Fatah gunmen who support Abbas and their Hamas counter-parts that back Prime Minister Haniyeh. It can be argued this Palestinian showdown is also the result of Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon proposed the unilateral step because Yasser Arafat proved he was not a peace partner by exploiting his control over the Palestinian security forces and the terror organizations to play the terror card when he deemed fit. Although Abbas may have wanted to negotiate in good faith, he lacked the power to do so. Realizing this Sharon persisted in carrying out the Gaza withdrawal unilaterally. Otherwise, negotiating with Abbas could have opened up the Roadmap issues including a West Bank withdrawal as well; this, with a Palestinian leader who lost the recent election and could never have made a deal stick.It is said of Arafat that he was strong enough to have made peace with Israel but didn't want to; Abbas wanted to seek peace but was not strong enough to do so. The Palestinians are now at daggers drawn determining where they are headed now. They blame everyone else in the world for their predicament. But until the Palestinians have a strong leader like Ariel Sharon who will tell them they must compromise, they are doomed to their current chaos. Sharon told the Israeli people they must give up their dream of a greater Land of Israel. So a Palestinian leadership must tell the Palestinians they will not be going back to Israel and that they must build Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza. Until that happens, the Roadmap peace process will be at a dead-end. The new emerging government in Israel is about to take office against this backdrop.

David Essing

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