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Olmert Clashes with the Religious Right

19 January 2006

By Yisrael Ne’eman

Acting PM Ehud Olmert is clashing with the settler movement head on. With all the problems and issues he needs to face after suddenly replacing Ariel Sharon in leading the country and the upstart Kadima party, logic would seem to dictate that Olmert should leave evacuating illegal Jewish settlements (by Israeli law) in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) until after the elections. But Olmert needs to solidify his position as Sharon’s replacement as #1 in Kadima, prove he is prime ministerial material by making “tough decisions” and strengthen Israel’s strategic relationship with the USA by showing he will keep promises made to the Bush Administration. Taking on the Hebron settlers, who are considered among the more extreme and ripping down another 23 illegal settlements are exactly the actions necessary to consolidate his position, especially before the March 28 elections.

Olmert was a MK before the age of thirty and has more political savvy than most. Kadima, Labor and Meretz all support such a policy and yesterday’s public opinion polls show these three parties with 68 seats in the Knesset if elections were held today. Furthermore, despite the supposed objections by the more right wing Likud it is known that followers of former foreign minister Sylvan Shalom would advocate a similar policy. About half of the Likud’s expected 14 seats would endorse his position while the reputedly right wing Yisrael Betainu (5 seats) led by Avigdor Leiberman is also talking of a territorial compromise, meaning they too endorse uprooting certain settlements. None of this takes into consideration the Israeli Arab vote or the Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism (6 seats) whose leading rabbis are quite dovish on such worldly issues. Putting this together one comes up with over 80 members of the next Knesset in favor of dismantling illegal settlements.

The staunch “orange wave” anti-disengagement right wing is led by the National Union and National Religious parties with a possible 5 and 4 seats respectively. The ultra-orthodox Shas is said to get 11 but it is unclear what their future policy will be. (All the above estimates are based on yesterday’s poll published in Ma’ariv.)

In Wednesday’s Ha’aretz poll concerning attitudes towards Jerusalem, 63% of Israel’s Jewish population was willing to cede Arab neighborhoods (outside of the Old City and Mt. of Olives) as part of a permanent status agreement with a Palestinian state. Another Ma’ariv sampling showed 51% in favor of another unilateral disengagement.

Former Chairman of the Judea, Samaria and Gaza (Yesha) Council of Jewish settlements Otniel Schneller was virtually the last person to meet with Ariel Sharon before his stroke. Schneller, now a Kadima member, put together a map for a unilateral disengagement in the West Bank. Sharon was quite pleased and a three way dance is to be choreographed between Israel, the Bush Administration and the moderate settlers (and the Yesha Council) to produce a contiguous Palestinian state while holding on to the maximum amount of settlers and security in the West Bank in the absence of any reliable Palestinian negotiating partner (“Schneller Plan” Ma’ariv). With massive internal consensus, Israel would consolidate new frontiers in coordination with a US guarantee.

Olmert fell into the middle of Sharon’s game, is riding a wave of anti-Palestinian and anti-settler fever but has yet to prove himself as a worthy successor of the tough general and formerly right wing Sharon. Olmert needs a battle and the more radical the opposition, the better. Israeli courts ruled to evict the eight Jewish families who moved into the Hebron wholesale market area five years ago. They must leave despite the fact that the property is in fact owned by Jews who held physical possession until the 1929 Arab pogroms (66 dead) forced the evacuation of the Jewish community. It is realistic that the families will be allowed to move back in a few months or so, but in the meantime the Acting PM is sworn to “uphold the law.”

The more extreme elements of the settler movement are seen as the tail that wagged the dog for over a generation and Israel’s growing political center wants them whipped and reigned in. Until Sharon’s Gaza Disengagement broke the taboo in August the settler movement was held in awe and even feared by many. Suddenly it is in vogue to get in on the action of bashing the religious right.

To prove true leadership, Olmert must threaten and cajole, forcing a self-evacuation (with possible Yesha Council help) of the Hebron market and the other 23 illegal outposts. One should remember the old adage, “Power is the absence of violence.” Should Olmert manage such a feat without the security forces he will take the Jewish State a giant step forward beyond Sharon’s disengagement and certainly be worthy of the premiership.