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by Peter Hirschberg

Israel, Palestine Wary as Ceasefire Begins

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- Israelis had been captivated by the idea. They could withdraw from Palestinian areas, which they realized they could no longer control, without having to negotiate with the Palestinians, whom they did not trust.

When former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally evacuated all the settlements and the army from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, he won massive public backing. And as Israelis moved into 2006, they were ready to support him again, in an election to be held in March.

Even though Sharon had publicly stated he would not carry out a further unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank, most Israelis believed he would. No less important, they believed he was the only leader who could.

They didn't get a chance to find out. On the night of Jan. 4, Sharon suffered a massive brain hemorrhage that has left him in a deep coma ever since. But unilateralism did not die: Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert, was an even greater believer. Displaying rare candour for a politician on the campaign trail, he explicitly told Israelis ahead of the March election that he planned to unilaterally withdraw from much of the West Bank.

But as 2006 ended, Olmert found himself largely agenda-less, his West Bank withdrawal plan a distant, unfulfilled promise -- thanks to the military campaign he waged in the summer against Hezbollah in Lebanon. By the end of the war, with the Israeli military having been unable to vanquish Hezbollah, Olmert's West Bank plan was in tatters and his popularity blown to bits by the hundreds of rockets that rained down on northern Israel -- until the very last day of the month-long war.

Unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, to an internationally recognized border, had not brought quiet for Israelis. Neither had the unilateral pullout from Gaza, after which Palestinian militants continued to fire rockets into Israel on an almost daily basis, even though there were no Israelis left in Gaza.

After the war in Lebanon, Israelis swiftly retreated from the idea of a unilateral pullout in the West Bank, unenthusiastic over the prospect of Hamas militants, armed with rockets, perched on the doorstep of the country's major population centers. So did Olmert, who announced in the immediate aftermath of the fighting that he was shelving his West Bank plan.

If Sharon's illness had grabbed international attention at the beginning of January, three weeks later it was the chance of Hamas. The Islamic movement sent shockwaves all the way to Washington when it trounced the more moderate ruling Fatah party in parliamentary elections. As the year drew to a close, the Palestinians were again making headlines, but this time round because they were perilously close to all-out civil war as Fatah and Hamas militants battled each other in the streets of Gaza.

The rise to power of the Islamic movement, which does not recognize Israel, brought with it crippling sanctions by the U.S. and Europe on the Palestinian people. The abduction of a soldier from a base inside Israel by Palestinian militants in June -- Cpl. Gilad Shalit is still being held captive in Gaza -- and the ongoing rocket fire into Israel, brought with it death and destruction. Over 500 Palestinians were killed in the resulting Israeli raids into the coastal strip.

Abbas tried to get the sanctions lifted by negotiating a government of national unity with Hamas that would accept conditions set out by the Quartet (U.S., Russia, EU and UN), including recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence, but after months of negotiations failed to produce concrete results the Palestinian leader announced in December that he planned to call an early election.

The move sparked the worst factional fighting since the Palestinian Authority was created 12 years ago, with militants from Hamas and Fatah battling each other in the streets. Seventeen people were killed and dozens injured.

If Abbas persists with his call for new elections in 2007, the factional warfare could get worse, the rocket salvos into Israel could get heavier and the ray of hope presented by a December meeting between Olmert and Abbas could be extinguished, giving way to renewed Israeli raids into Gaza.

There is also no guarantee, for Abbas, that his Fatah party will triumph. The movement is still in disarray and opinion polls show it has only a slender lead over Hamas, despite the hardships suffered by Palestinians as a result of the sanctions and Israeli raids during the nine months in which the Islamic movement has been in power.

In the wake of the Olmert-Abbas meeting, it seemed Israel was trying to help bolster the embattled Palestinian leader. It agreed to transfer $100 million in frozen tax revenues owed the Palestinians to Abbas and to ease travel restrictions in the West Bank.

Olmert also authorized the transfer from Egypt of thousands of assault rifles to forces loyal to Abbas in Gaza, to help them contend with Hamas. But if Fatah is to have any chance of winning an election, it will have to present a diplomatic horizon to the Palestinian people and to do that it will be dependent, to a large extent, on whether Olmert is prepared to cooperate.

The Israeli leader will also have to decide in the coming year what to do about Syrian President Bashar Assad's persistent calls for renewed negotiations. So far, he has strenuously rejected all overtures from Damascus, including Assad's challenge in a December interview to call his "bluff" and see if he is serious about peace.

Until President Bush changes his mind about Syria -- he has not accepted the Baker-Hamilton report suggesting he engage Damascus as part of an effort to stabilize Iraq -- don't expect Olmert to change his. He recently told his ministers as much, saying that Israel should not succumb to Assad's wooing as long as Bush, "the most important strategic ally of Israel, opposes any negotiations with Syria."

In 2007, Israeli leaders will continue to agonize over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Tehran, they believe, is determined to build the bomb and they don't believe that sanctions, recently imposed by the United Nations, will dampen this aspiration.

Meir Dagan, the head of Israel's Mossad spy agency, recently estimated that Iran will have nuclear weapons by 2009 or 2010. In the wake of Dagan's remarks, senior officials in Jerusalem were quoted as saying that there was still time for diplomatic efforts to block Iran's nuclear program.

But Israel's deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh is less sanguine, suggesting that Israel would have to face tough decisions on Iran sooner that it would like.

"Right now I think that we are truly approaching what is really the last time, that if the international community does what it needs to do -- and not in a weak or pathetic way, but in a determined way... in ways that cause suffering to this regime, which is sworn to wipe us out -- then there will be no need to weigh other options," he said recently, implying that if sanctions failed then the military option would have to be seriously contemplated.

These decisions will fall to a leader whose public image has been battered by a war Israelis believe he mismanaged. After his meeting with Abbas, Olmert promized it would be the first in a series. But there was no sense that the meeting somehow fitted into a broader plan the Prime Minister might be cooking up in place of his ditched West Bank idea.

And even if Olmert crafts a new approach, or tries to revive his West Bank plan, or engages Syria, it's not clear he would be able to garner sufficient political backing and public confidence to make the concessions that would be required in setting Israel's final borders -- a promise he made on the eve of his election victory.

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Albion Monitor   January 4, 2007   (

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