TEL AVIV — Acting interim Prime Minister Ehud led his centrist Kajima party to victory in the Israeli parliamentary election on Tuesday, winning 28 out of 120 seats.
With a relatively slim plurality, Olmert now has to form a coalition capable of seeing through his campaign platform to redraw Israel’s borders and withdraw from West Bank settlements.
NBC’s Martin Fletcher analyzes the implications of Olmert’s victory, both for its impact Israeli politics and whether or not it is the death knell for the Mideast peace process.
What does the results of the Israeli election and the victory of the Kadima party mean for the future of Israel?
For starters, one misnomer, I think, is that the election is being called a victory for the center, in that Kadima is a centrist party between the left-wing Labor Party and the right-wing Likud.
Once Olmert has formed a coalition as the new leader of the Israeli parliament, he will begin to pursue the key reason for which he was elected – to draw Israel’s final borders, with or without the consent of the Palestinians.
Olmert says that he wants to draw those borders only with the Palestinians' agreement and that he will ask for them to talk about it. But, he has also said that if the Palestinians don’t want to talk about it, they will go ahead unilaterally, and that’s the key point. The Israelis are fed up with waiting, and they are in the mood to simply dictate what the future borders will be.
Of course, that’s been rejected already by the Palestinians. Hamas, the Islamic militants who just won the Palestinian election, have already said repeatedly that they will not recognize the state of Israel, and that they will not renounce terrorism, which they call legitimate resistance against the occupation. So, it’s a bit of a stalemate there.
It’s clear that Olmert will go through the motions of appearing to ask the Palestinians to negotiate.
It’s likely that once he’s shown the world – the U.S., Europe, and the U.N. – that in good faith, he’s attempted to include the Palestinians, but he still hasn’t made any progress, then he’s hoping that he’ll get the world’s support for Israeli unilateral action to settle its final borders.
How is the resettlement process expected to happen?
Olmert has actually been very clear on what the resettlement is going to mean. He is going to move all of the settlers into four blocks, which are called “blocks of settlements” and already exist. That will include about 200,000 Jewish settlers, whose land and homes will essentially be annexed to Israel. They will be on the Israeli side of the wall Israel is in the process of building.
In addition, there will be about another 70,000 Israeli settlers who will be on the “wrong side” of that wall – on the Palestinian side. And they are the people who will have to pay the price for Olmert’s victory – they are the ones who will be pressured to leave their homes and either go live in one of those settlement blocks, or come back and live inside what is considered the main line of Israel.
So, that’s a huge confrontation that is set to take place whenever Olmert gets on with his plan. The estimate is that he probably won’t begin to do anything for a year or so, but he does say that he wants to finish it by the end of his term – by 2010.
That timeline seems very quick. How much opposition is expected from those 70,000 settlers? How feasible is it that this will come to pass?
It sounds almost undoable when you think of the trouble Israel had removing those 9,000 settlers from Gaza last summer. But, I don’t think it will necessarily be as hard as it appears.
In Gaza, nearly all of those settlers actually worked in Gaza. So when they left they did not only lose their homes, they also lost their jobs. Many of them are still suffering today and still don’t have jobs or permanent places to live. They were all either very ideologically motivated Jewish settlers or they were people with deep roots in the land whose jobs and livelihoods depended on being in Gaza.
In the West Bank it’s a different story. There are about 20,000 to 30,000 highly ideologically committed Jewish settlers, but that’s out of a total number of about 270,000.
All the rest, about 240,000, are mostly people living in settlements that they moved to because it’s a cheap place to live, they have what they call their “little villa in the sun” with their own garden, and they are mostly working outside of their own settlements – in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or other towns inside Israel.
That means of the approximately 70,000 that will be forced to move, most of them will have no real financial reason not to move. They may not want to leave their homes, but it won’t be as problematic as in Gaza, simply because they have jobs elsewhere already and will be able to keep those jobs.
Breaking those numbers down even further, of the 70,000, we could estimate that say 10,000 will be ideologically committed to staying and will have jobs that will be hard to replace. They will resist resettlement, and will likely be joined by any number of other right-wing people who support their desire to stay in the West Bank. But it won’t be as dramatic as it sounds. The vast majority will be compensated financially and will leave quietly.
This government was elected on a very clear platform. Nahum Barnea, a leading Israeli analyst, pointed out that no Israeli prime ministerial candidate has ever said so clearly what he would do once he was elected.
Olmert was elected by a majority of Israelis who said we’ve had it up to here with the conflict. We know that we are eventually going to leave the West Bank, so let’s leave now and if the Palestinians don’t agree with how we are going to do it, well, we’re going to do it anyway.
How does that leave things for the Palestinians?
The Palestinians have totally rejected the concept of a unilateral Israeli pullout from the West Bank. When Israel dictates what the future Israeli border will be, by definition, they are dictating what the future border will be of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians totally reject that idea. They say this can only be done by negotiation and we’re not going to give up any land.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said repeatedly that he wants to negotiate, and that the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization still recognize all the agreements they signed with Israel and therefore Israel should not unilaterally annul those agreements.
That may be what Abu Mazen says, but he’s speaking for himself and very few others. The vast majority of Palestinians elected Hamas in their parliamentary elections in January and Hamas position is as clear as Olmert’s was in the Israeli election. Hamas' position is that we will not negotiate with Israel because we do not recognize Israel.
At the moment, things are still fairly polite, with the Palestinians, and even Hamas, saying that they want to negotiate with Israel, not directly, but through a third party. But as the Palestinians realize that Israel is going to go ahead and act unilaterally anyway, it could get much more violent very suddenly.
What does this leave the peace process?
Nobody likes to say that the peace process is dead. But for the last couple of years, both the Israelis and the Palestinians have tap-danced around with words, trying to place the blame for any failures in the other party’s court.
Today, I personally would say, and many analysts here do say, it’s dead as a doornail. There is no peace process. Right now, there are no peace negotiations actually taking place on any level between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
This election above all focused attention on the fact that the majority of Israelis want stability and quiet. They recognize that the peace process is not going to go anywhere, but they want action anyway, despite that. That action would be a unilateral defining of the borders and pulling out of most of the West Bank.