election.jpg (image from Ynetnews.com)

Well, it looks as if Olmert is the next Prime Minister of Israel. You may think this is a sure thing, but it still has to play out as Kadima tries to build a coalition. Why is there some hesitation here? Because a bunch of OLD Israelis (Pensioners) managed to secure 7 seats out of 120 while Kadima only managed 28. This means that Labor could take on the Pensioners and Meretz and start negotiations for a coalition before Olmert gets to play his cards. It’s unlikely that this would happen, and Israel’s President Katzav will probably give Olmert the right to built a coalition first, but you never know. The most likely scenario is that Kadima will join forces with Labor and the Pensioners and then add one more party like Shas to get over the magical 60 seats necessary to secure a majority in the Knesset. Olmert will be the PM.

Who is Olmert? Nobody really knows. He is an intelligent man who didn’t run Jerusalem all too well when he was mayor and who didn’t fear sucking up to the city’s Haredi community, even as he knew they were using him, if it meant he could hold on to power. He speaks eloquently about Israel, but last time I watched him on a Town Hall Meeting on Nightline, Dr. Barghouti was doing a far better job explaining the Palestinian position while Olmert kept sounding quite condescending as he ignored the Palestinian’s claims. Then again, he happened to be right, so maybe the condescension was warranted.

Sharon picked him out to be his protegee. He would often send Olmert out to feed the press some of their trial balloons. If something needed to be done where Sharon wanted to be Oz behind the screen, it was Olmert who would do his bidding. If the Likud needed to be beaten down because their far-right fringe (which now IS the Likud) wanted to shout down Sharon, it was Olmert who was sent over.

The loyal lieutenant finally got the promised position of being heir to the throne, but probably didn’t wish it upon himself in the manner with which it happened. Then again, if your whole life is spent in pursuit of leading the Jewish state and suddenly another man’s stroke puts you in the perfect leadership position with the right party set-up and your opponents in a hollowed out shell of your former party, you probably have to think that there’s a God upstairs and he’s looking out for you.

In this election, presenting the final votes as a referendum on his ideas, Olmert has promised that Israel will have final borders within 4 years. He has promised to finish the security barrier and move the IDF and Israelis who live east of the barrier to its western side. He intends to keep a strip of the Jordan Valley for security reasons as well. He has promised to keep the larger settlement blocks near the Green Line as part of these final borders, and intends to build the E1 neighborhood linking Ma’aleh Edumim to Jerusalem. If this sounds familiar, it should because it is essentially a combination of Israel’s offers to the Palestinians at Camp David and Taba – sans access or sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Chances are that in order to achieve his goals, Olmert will have to accede to the demands of his coalition partners. Labor and the Pensioners will demand important portfolios, as will Shas. They will demand that this government roll back many of the cuts that took place under Netanyahu and Sharon, and that the government provide better resources for certain segments of the Israeli population. Subsidies might even come back into fashion. What had become a Republican-like government policy will revert to Israel’s Socialist roots, at least to some degree. After all, nobody in Israel cares about domestic policy because the Arab-Israeli conflict consumes all the attention. If Netanyahu wanted X, he got X. If Peretz or some elderly new Knesset members now want Y, they’ll get Y.

Olmert will also have some tough decisions to make regarding the Palestinians. No Israeli government can ignore a Palestinian government because there are so many areas where the two sides have to deal with each other. Yet, as I listened to Hamas’s newly appointed PM of the Palestinian Authority, Hanieh, I did not hear him mention the name “Israel” even once. He mentioned occupation and the “Judaization of Jerusalem;” he related to lots of other countries and leaders; pleaded for donor money to continue flowing (including a guarantee that the funds will only be used for their intended purpose); urged the world to recognize the democratic will of the Palestinians; etc., etc.. What he didn’t say was “Israel.” Of course, “right of return” and Jerusalem were also non-negotiable for him.

On the other hand, Mahmoud Abbas has indicated that he is willing and has the authority to negotiate for peace with Israel without any preconditions (!!). He promised final negotiations could be concluded within a year and that he will be able to bring the government, i.e. Hamas, to the table. Is he scamming so that international donations will keep coming? Maybe. Or maybe he realizes that this may truly be the last chance for the Palestinians for many decades to come if Olmert actually implements his plan.

Sharon used to ignore these folks. My sense is that Olmert will pay some initial attention, but if a single things goes wrong, like, say, a suicide bombing inside Israel, he will probably use the event as a reason to shut down talks and move forward unilaterally. The only reason he may reconsider this option is that it appears his party lost a projected 8-10 seats because of his public statements about a unilateral Israeli disengagement from the West Bank. Many people, especially among those who have voted for his likely coalition partners, would rather attempt to achieve a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians because they perceive the outcome as more secure. Some will say they are deluded that there’s even somebody with whom to talk. Then again, how can it hurt to talk a bit?

In other news, the Palestinians have fired a katyusha rocket from Gaza into Israel. This will have an impact on far more communities because the range and targeting of this rocket are far superior to the Qassems. As we know, Israel has no real solution for these rocket attacks but one would guess that if, God forbid, one of them hits and kills a few Israelis, the reaction will be a strong military one. Israel had Lebanese katyushas on its border for many years, and currently has a large number of rockets on its Lebanese border again. It survived and survives them.

Anyway, as Laya’s post tells us, we are probably not in for an exciting time:

“The hell it isn’t,” my father replied. “Listen, we’ve had so many Rabins and Pereses and Begins, people who tried to galvanize everyone with their charisma and energy. None of them ever really managed to bring us peace. I’m telling you, what this region needs is Olmert — someone who’ll bore us and the Palestinians so much that we fall into a kind of stupor. A stupor that’s a kind of co-existence. A co-existence that’s a kind of peace. Forget all that ‘peace of the courageous’ stuff Barak and Arafat tried to sell us. Even a child knows that courageous people go into battle, they don’t make peace. What this region needs is a peace of the tired, and Olmert’s the man to put us all to sleep.”

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Oh, did I mention that the Likud had its worst showing since 1955? It was clobbered. Who did the clobbering other than Kadima? It was a party called Israel Beteinu led by a certain Mr. Lieberman who advocates voluntary transfer of Arabs from Israel to the Palestinian Authority, along with some of the lands of the Galillee. In return, Israel would get to keep the settlement blocks. For this and his other strong views, he has been called a racist. The idea has been declared illegal both from an Israeli legal standpoint as well as an international one. But it’s an interesting idea and was first brought up by an American and a Palestinian – Malley and Agha – in 2002 as they were seeking a solution for the impasse of 2000.

A solution that satisfied the political demands only of the nonrefugees in the West Bank and Gaza while appearing to ignore the moral, historical, and political demands of the refugees, would be inherently unstable. It would have questionable legitimacy, would undermine the new Palestinian state, and — most alarming from an Israeli perspective — would leave open the prospect that a sizeable number of Palestinians would decide to carry on the struggle. Although denying outright the Palestinians’ right of return might seem a way to end Israelis’ immediate anxiety, it would not end the conflict; it would only transfer the seat of unrest to the Palestinian diaspora without eliminating the threat to Israel’s security.

The challenge is to find a stable and durable solution that accommodates both the refugees’ yearning to return to the areas they left in 1948 and Israel’s demographic fears. This can be accomplished by relying on two basic principles. First, refugees should be given the choice to return to the general area where they lived before 1948 (along with the choice to live in Palestine, resettle in some third country, or be absorbed by their current country of refuge if the host country agrees). Second, any such return should be consistent with the exercise of Israel’s sovereign powers over entry and resettlement locations. Many of the refugees presumably want to go back to their original homes. But these homes, and indeed, in many cases, the entire villages where they were located, either no longer exist or are now inhabited by Jews. The next best option from the refugees’ own perspective would be to live among people who share their habits, language, religion, and culture — that is, among the current Arab citizens of Israel. Israel would settle the refugees in its Arab- populated territory along the 1967 boundaries. Those areas would then be included in the land swap with Palestine and thereby end up as part of the new Palestinian state.

Together with generous financial compensation and other incentives to encourage refugees to resettle in third countries or in Palestine, this solution would promote several key interests. On one side, Palestinian refugees would carry out the right of return. For them, returning to the general area from which they fled or were forced to flee in the 1948 war would be extremely significant because it would cross an important psychological and political threshold. Although they would not return to their original homes, the refugees would get to live in a more familiar and hospitable environment — and one that would ultimately be ruled not by Israelis, but by their own people. Through the swap, Palestine would acquire land of far better quality than the desert areas adjacent to Gaza that have been offered in the past. For Israelis, meanwhile, this solution would actually improve the demographic balance, since the number of Arab Israelis would diminish as a result of the land transfer. Most important, it would pave the way for a stable outcome in which Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and the diaspora would all have an important stake.

Of course, such a solution would not be problem-free. Israelis might fear that it will add to the anxiety and discontent of the Israeli Arabs who remained under Israeli sovereignty. But the demographic and political problems posed today by the Israeli Arab community already demand urgent attention. How better to neutralize their potentially irredentist feelings than to resolve the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Some Palestinians might argue that the above plan represents nothing more than a sleight of hand, disguising resettlement in Palestine as a return to their pre-1948 lands. But do the refugees actually want to live in Jewish areas that have become part of an alien country? Would they rather live under Israeli rule than Palestinian rule? And short of calling into question Israel’s Jewish identity, is there any other way of implementing the Palestinian right of return?

It’s been a bit boring for the last few months. Not any more…

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themiddle

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