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December 12, 2003 - Image 22

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-12-12

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Unilateral Upheaval

Olmert's proposal roils Likud and changes Israel's national agenda.


Jewish Telegraphic Agency

n a single passionate interview
recently, Israel's deputy prime
minister, Ehud Olmert, managed
to do what most politicians only
dream about: recast a nation's political
and diplomatic agenda.
Although Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon has been talking vaguely about
"unilateral steps" vis-a-vis the
Palestinians for some time, nothing
could have prepared the Israeli public
for the urgency in his deputy's recent
Olmert called for Israeli withdrawal
from large swathes of Palestinian-popu-
lated territory, including parts of
Jerusalem, without so much as a hint of
a Palestinian quid pro quo.
Olmert, the former mayor of
Jerusalem, made his call for a unilateral
pullback in a high-profile exchange with
a leading political journalist, Yediot
Achronot's Nahum Barnea. The inter-
view startled the left by appropriating
one of its central ideas — the demo-
graphic threat to the Jewish state — and
throwing the right, to which Olmert
nominally belongs, into confused disar-
Borrowing from the political idiom of
the left, Olmert told Barnea that time
was running out and that Israel needed
to separate from the Palestinians before
they started calling for a single bination-
al state in which Arabs soon would be
the majority. Since there is no chance of
a deal with the Palestinians any time
soon, Olmert argued, Israel would have
to make the move unilaterally — and
the sooner the better.
Olmert's proposal comes in the wake
of the unofficial "Geneva Accord" peace
proposal, launched with much fanfare
Dec. 1, and a grass-roots peace petition
led by Palestinian intellectual Sari
Nusseibeh and former Israeli security
official Ami Ayalon. Settlers also have
proposed their own peace plan in recent
Olmert's dramatic policy shift is sig-
nificant because, unlike the other initia-
tives, it arises from within the ruling
Likud Party.
Yet it comes at a political price: If it
sinks without a trace, the proposal




could cost Olmert his
career. If it gets off the
ground, it could break
up Sharon's center-
right coalition and
even split the Likud,
to which both Olmert
and Sharon belong.
But it also could
change the course of
Israeli history if it rallies the right
behind policies already supported by
much of the left.
Olmert gave an inkling of things to
come in an early December speech at
David Ben-Gurion's grave site on the
anniversary of the death of Israel's first
prime minister. Of all Ben-Gurion's
voluminous sayings, Olmert chose to
quote one on the folly of trying to
retain the entire biblical Land of Israel.
"Suppose we would have conquered
all of western Israel," Ben-Gurion
mused shortly after the 1948 War of
Independence, referring to the West
Bank. "Then what? We would create a
single state. But that state would want
to be democratic. There would be gen-
eral elections and we would be a minor-
"Faced with the choice of the whole
land without a Jewish state or a Jewish
state without the whole land, we chose
a Jewish state."
Israel's chattering citizens pricked up
their ears, detecting a change in
Olmert's worldview. Then, in the inter-
view with Barnea, Olmert elaborated on
the demographic threat to which Ben-
Gurion had alluded. The time is fast
approaching when Arabs will constitute
a majority in Israel and the West Bank
and Gaza.
Then, Olmert said, Palestinians will
abandon their calls for an independent
state and instead will demand a one-
man-one-vote system in a binational
state that they will control.
"The day we come to that," Olmert
said, "we will lose everything. Even
when they carry out terror, it's hard for
us to convince the world of the justice
of our cause. How much the more so
when all they ask for is one man, one
"I shudder to think that the same lib-
eral Jews who led the struggle against
apartheid in South Africa will be at the
forefront of the struggle against us."


Abbas' Failure

The event that crystallized Olmert's
thinking was the collapse of the govern-
ment of Palestinian Authority Prime
Minister Mahmoud Abbas in
September. Abbas' failure in optimal
international conditions led Olmert to
conclude that a peace agreement with
the Palestinians was not possible.
Adding to Olmert's sense of urgency
was Israel's loss of support on the world
stage, and especially in the United
States, in the wake of Abbas' failure, and
the emergence of new peace proposals
like the Geneva Accord, which are less
favorable to Israel than the official road-
map peace plan.
Progress in building the security barri-
er between Israel and the West Bank
made the idea of unilateral separation
more practical. The key question now is
the extent to which Sharon will back his
deputy's bold proposal.
Olmert implies that the prime minis-
ter has gone through the same thou t
process and has reached similar conclu-
sions. But aides say the unilateral pull-
back that Sharon favors would come
only after an attempt to reach an agree-
ment with Ahmed Qurei, the new
Palestinian Authority prime minister,
and would be much smaller in scope
than Olmert's.
Likud critics of both Sharon and his
deputy believe Olmert is floating a trial
balloon for the prime minister and that
Sharon will modify his policy according
to the feedback. In both cases, though,
the withdrawal would entail evacuation
of many Jewish settlements.
The talk of unilateral withdrawal has
triggered a fierce ideological debate with-
in the Likud, with most public figures
highly critical of Sharon and Olmert,
accusing them of selling out party prin-
ciples and giving in to terrorism.
One legislator, Gilad Erdan, has
signed up one-third of Likud's Knesset
caucus against the unilateral moves;
another, Ya'acov Hazan, has tabled a bill
stipulating that any dismantling of set-
tlements would require a two-thirds
majority in the Knesset.

Likud Debate

In a tense Likud Party caucus meeting
in late November, Erdan challenged

Sharon, saying bluntly, "Perhaps we,"
the ideological purists, "don't belong in
the party — and perhaps someone else
The direction the ideological battle
will take depends on whether party
heavyweights who oppose unilateral
moves — especially Finance Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu — decide to lie
low or to challenge Sharon.
Theoretically, Netanyahu could lead a
vote of no-confidence in Sharon and,
with the support of 61 Knesset mem-
bers, replace him as prime minister.
Such a scenario is far-fetched — it
would mean splitting the Likud — but
it's a possibility.
What is certain is that if Sharon does
move toward unilateral withdrawal,
Sharon would lose his two right-wing
coalition partners, the National Union
bloc and the National Religious Party,
and would have to bring in the Labor
Party to replace them.
Effi Eitam insists that his National
Religious Party will not remain in the
coalition and says unilateral moves defy
logic. "We won't be in the territory; we
won't have an agreement and we will
have given a prize to terror," Eitam said.
The unilateral withdrawal plan comes
partly to counter a flurry of private ini-
tiatives: The Ayalon-Nusseibeh state-
ment of principles and the Geneva
Accord both deal with the demographic
problem by drawing the border between
Israel and a future Palestinian state more
or less along Israel's pre-1967 border
with Jordan. The settler plan would
solve the problem by offering the
Palestinians Israeli citizenship but by
weighting voting procedures so that the
country is always ruled by a Jew.
Olmert argues that his plan is superi-
or to all three: The settler plan almost
surely is a non-starter and, compared to
Ayalon-Nusseibeh and Geneva,
Olmert's recommendations would
maintain the country's current demo-
graphic balance — approximately an
80-20 ratio of Jews to Arabs inside
Israel — while giving up less land and
retaining more of Jerusalem, specifically
the Temple Mount.
The immediate questiOn, though, is
whether Sharon will stay the course and
risk his coalition, his position in the
Likud and a possible head-on clash with
his greatest rival, Netanyahu.

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