Gershon Gorenberg notes in The Forward that Ehud Olmert has decided to speed up his timetable for the “major” West Bank settlement withdrawal he touted during the recent election campaign. He plans to complete it within 18 months. According to Gorenberg, Olmert had two considerations in mind. One is that he believes he may have a volatile coalition which might implode if he waits too long to act (i.e. strike while the political iron is hot). The second is U.S. politics. Olmert knows he has a friend in George Bush and he’d rather stick with the Pharaoh he knows than the future one he doesn’t, fearing that a new president will arise who “knows not” Olmert nor approves of his unilateralism:
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…Bush has put little diplomatic muscle into pushing either Israelis or Palestinians to follow that map…
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.
This is how the Wall Street Journal characterized his views in a recent interview given, no doubt, to set the stage for his upcoming visit to the States which will include his first meeting as head of state with Bush:
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he intends to finalize plans for a large pullout from parts of the occupied West Bank within the next 18 months, and that he will travel to the U.S. next month to try to secure Washington’s support as he sketches the plan’s contours.
In an interview yesterday at his Jerusalem office, Mr. Olmert said his planned meeting with President Bush in Washington will mark the onset of efforts to secure international support for the pullout, including financial assistance. Under his plan, Mr. Olmert intends to evacuate as many as 70,000 Jewish settlers from their homes — a move that some rough estimates say could cost more than $10 billion — while annexing large chunks of disputed Palestinian territory.
The goal, Mr. Olmert said, is to establish permanent, internationally recognized borders that will ensure Israel retains its Jewish majority for decades to come. Though he expects to carry out the plan without Palestinian input, he believes it will help create conditions that could lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state and a negotiated peace settlement someday. “The State of Israel will change the face of the region,” Mr. Olmert said of his plan. “I will not miss this opportunity.”
Of course, Olmert is in cloud cuckoo land if he believes that the world will sign off on such heavy-handed Israeli unilateralism. And Bush too will share cloud cuckoo land with Olmert if he affirms Israeli delusions that they can both fix their borders beyond the Green Line and without Palestinian acquiescence. For this reason, what happens in Washington during Olmert’s visit is very important. Bush certainly will not turn down Olmert flat. But will he give Olmert the cover he covets to set final borders? Or will Bush try to give him half a loaf and hope that will suffice? Here’s more about Bush’s quandary from WSJ:
The Bush administration also might find itself in a bind. So far, Mr. Bush has voiced support for a West Bank pullout, but his administration will face tough decisions as the plan takes shape. Mr. Olmert, for instance, said Israel will need U.S. financial assistance to implement the evacuation.
Yet if it finances the pullout, the U.S. will likely be seen throughout the Middle East as assisting Israel’s bid to take permanent control of large settlement blocs and Jerusalem. The fear is that this would add to regional anger toward the U.S., complicating efforts to stabilize Iraq and promote democracy in other countries.
In the interview, Mr. Olmert called for broad international support, saying his plan was the only alternative to continued fighting. Once it is complete, he said, physical separation from the Palestinians will reduce daily friction and violence and leave Palestinians with land that could someday become a viable state.
This is yet another delusion on Olmert’s part. Of course, establishing international borders with Bush’s approval will sit quite nicely with the Israeli public. But it certainly will do nothing whatsoever to hasten the day when a Palestinian state is established. In fact, if Olmert could guarantee Israeli security through such borders along with the Separation Wall this would eliminate ANY incentive for him to negotiate regarding the creation of such a state. My guess is that if Bush gives away the store to Olmert on this trip (and I don’t expect him to do so) that we could kiss off the idea of a viable Palestinian state in our lifetimes.
As part of his discussion of Olmert’s coalition-forming strategy, Gorenberg provides a paragraph about Avigdor Lieberman’s brushes with the law. As with most right-wing Israeli politicians, Lieberman appears ethically-challenged:
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.
This is a man who on election night said he anticipated joining a coalition government with Kadima, adding that after the following election he expected to be leader of the coalition, i.e. prime minister. Lot’s of ambition, lots of moxie, and lot’s of baggage–both ethical and political.