Banking on Olmert

Published on Mar 30, 2006 03:09 AM IST

Israeli voters have, expectedly, delivered Ariel Sharon?s successor Ehud Olmert a decisive mandate.

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Israeli voters have, expectedly, delivered Ariel Sharon’s successor Ehud Olmert a decisive mandate. He can now go ahead with his declared plan of withdrawing thousands of settlers from the West Bank and to draw up new borders with the Palestinians.

Although the settlements are illegal under international law, Israel argues that the law does not apply in the West Bank. Although poll pundits had predicted a much more handsome victory for Mr Olmert’s centrist party Kadima — with 40-plus seats in the 120-seat Knesset — the 28 seats it won still makes it easily the biggest single party that can build a coalition government.

With the hardline Likud sliding to a humiliating fourth position in Parliament, Mr Olmert may find it easier to execute his disengagement plans. But he has to first put together a coalition, probably with support from Labour and the ultra-orthodox party, the Shas, over the coming days. While Labour may be keen on joining the government, the Shas — with its 13 Knesset seats and avowed opposition to withdrawing settlers — may drive a harder bargain in return for reversing its policy and supporting the disengagement. For a man who took over as caretaker PM under dramatic circumstances — when Mr Sharon became incapacitated — Mr Olmert has proven to be surprisingly hardy to the pulls and pushes of Israeli politics. He effectively made this election a referendum on his plan for a pull out from parts of the West Bank.

Of course, it remains to be seen how this will go down with the new Hamas-led Palestinian leadership, which could interpret this as Israel’s preference for separation from the Palestinians — who would remain east of the 500-mile barrier being built in and around the West Bank — rather than for peace negotiations. For the idea of establishing permanent borders for Israel by 2010, as Mr Olmert has declared in his victory speech, would also involve defining a Palestinian State with provisional borders in the West Bank.

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