Israel’s election a referendum on withdrawal plan

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — One thing seems certain after Israel holds an election on Tuesday — no matter who wins, peacemaking with the Palestinians will remain on hold.

After five years of a Palestinian uprising, few Israeli Jews believe in a final peace deal and most think the time has come to hunker behind the fortified barrier Israel is building in the West Bank and wait for better days.

And since the Islamic group Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in January, all mainstream political parties in Israel have ruled out talks unless it radically changes its ways.

For its part Hamas, dedicated to Israel’s destruction and “armed resistance against occupation,” anyway says negotiations with the Jewish state would be a waste of time.

Israeli interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promises to address this stalemate through dramatic unilateral steps if his centrist Kadima Party takes the top spot in the coming vote as opinion polls predict.

He calls it “consolidation”: A plan to draw a permanent border between Israel and the West Bank by 2010 by evacuating isolated Jewish settlements while strengthening the bigger blocs that Israel has said it intends to keep in any peace treaty.

Referendum on ‘consolidation’

“Of all the candidates, I’m the only one who has placed a clear political move on the national agenda,” Olmert was quoted by the Haaretz newspaper as telling one of its political columnists, Yoel Marcus, last week.

“And anyone who calls [Tuesday’s election] a referendum [on the consolidation plan] is right. That’s what it is.” A quarter of the 240,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank could be affected by the proposal, far more than the 8,500 removed from the Gaza Strip in Israel’s pullout last year.

The Palestinians, of whom there are 2.4 million in the West Bank, say the plan will not only effectively annex Israeli-occupied territory but also cut the direct routes between their population centres.

And this, they say, will put the last nail in the coffin of their hopes — backed by the United States — of establishing a viable and contiguous state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, Israeli right-wingers, such as former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud Party is running a distant third in pre-election surveys, say the proposal concedes too much to the Palestinians and rewards violence.

On the campaign stump, Netanyahu said a West Bank pullback would be “giving away something for nothing” and Likud would never be able to join a Kadima-led coalition government predicated along those lines.

Coalition

If Kadima gets the 35 or so seats that surveys predict in the 120-member parliament, Olmert will have to get to work to find governing partners.

Political analysts agree the centre-left Labour Party led by former trade union chief Amir Peretz would be the top candidate.

Opinion polls predict it will win around 21 seats, still leaving Kadima short of a parliamentary majority.

The gap could be filled by the left-wing Meretz Party and several ultra-Orthodox Jewish factions, whose main political focus has often been the securing of government funds for their religious institutions rather than territorial issues.

“With these… partners, and with the external support of part of the Arab bloc [in the Israeli parliament], Olmert could come up with a coalition base that would honour his election promises,” commentator Gideon Samet wrote in Haaretz.

Olmert, a veteran politician who took over from Ariel Sharon after the prime minister suffered a stroke on January 4 and fell into a coma, has said he is prepared to negotiate a partnership with “every Zionist and Jewish party.”

But he said any coalition must be based on his consolidation plan.

In an interview on Israel Radio on Sunday, Olmert sketched a post-election strategy in which Israel’s frontier lines would be determined through internal political debate followed by an attempt to win international support for a unilateral move.

“I have a foundation for believing that there is great openness, both in the United States and elsewhere, to listen to these points and to discuss them seriously,” he said.

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