Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 May 2006
Issue No. 793
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Setting the border

Israel's new government is about to be presented -- its core policy is already being implemented, writes Graham Usher

In a five-day dash, Ehud Olmert's Kadima Party initialled coalition agreements with the Pensioners' Party, the Labour Party and the orthodox Shas movement, granting him a 67-seat majority in the 120- member Knesset. Barring recantations, the government will be presented to Israel's president, Moshe Katsav, on Thursday.

Talks are also ongoing with the orthodox United Torah Judaism, the leftist Meretz faction and Avigdor Lieberman's neo-Fascist Yisrael Beiteinu Party. Should all or any of these movements sign, Olmert could end up heading the largest coalition in Israel's history. But size rarely projects strength in Israeli politics. More typically it masks divisions, not only between parties but within them.

Take Amir Peretz's Labour Party, with 20 seats Israel's second largest parliamentary faction. No sooner had he signed the coalition deal with Kadima than he was faced with "the rebellion of the Ashkenazi generals" -- military men like Labour's former Prime Minister Ehud Barak who hold in the lowest esteem Peretz's Moroccan, trade union and civilian background.

At a meeting of the party's Central Committee on 30 April, "the generals" insisted that Labour's seven ministers in the government be chosen by the party, not its leader. Peretz vanquished them, but with the thinnest of margins -- 677 votes to 633. There are fears Barak and the other generals and ex-intelligence chiefs will now peel off and form a faction. In any case, Israeli analysts predict Peretz will receive similar treatment -- from similar elements -- once he takes up the reigns at the Defence Ministry.

Look too at Shas. By common assent the centrepiece of the new government's programme is the pledge to evacuate isolated Jewish settlements (while annexing others) in the occupied West Bank. Yet it is this clause the orthodox party refuses to endorse.

"The convergence plan [Olmert's term for the removal of isolated settlements and annexation of major ones] is of course not acceptable to the Shas Party, there is nothing new in that and our opinion has not changed," said Shas's political leader, Eli Yishai, on 1 May. However, "any issue which arises in the course of the two years for which I assume the government will survive will be submitted [to Shas's religious leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yusuf] for his decision".

This could mean the government's fall, since, with 12 seats, Shas holds the balance of power in the parliament. Even should it stay loyal, it would extract a high price. It already has. For what is the entirely conditional support of the next government's programme, Shas has received four ministries and $400 million in state funds, including a restoration of subsidies for religious schools.

The only point where the four parties actually "converge" is on the shared appetite to colonise Palestinian land. On 30 April the Israeli cabinet unanimously approved the latest route of the West Bank wall, Israel's now openly declared political border incorporating about 10 per cent of occupied territory. Even more than before, the new route is predicated on the old Zionist principle of annexing the maximum amount of Arab land with the minimum number of Arab people.

Thus the settlement blocs of Kedumim and Ariel (the latter some 20 kilometres inside the West Bank) will be connected to Israel proper via two long "fingers" rather than a fist-like "enclave", which had the disadvantage of including thousands of Palestinians in dozens of villages. The East Jerusalem village of Beit Iksa will find itself on the "Palestinian" as opposed to the "Israeli" side of the wall. Its 1,500 Palestinians there will join tens of thousands of others separated from their lands, families and history by the vast semi-circular concrete arc that is slowly but inexorably segregating East Jerusalem from the West Bank.

Needless to say there was barely a squeak of international protest over the cabinet's move, including from Arab capitals. There was certainly no talk of political and economic sanctions, like those levied on the Palestinian Authority. This is because Hamas's "illegitimacy" is to refuse to recognise the foreign power that is occupying its country. Olmert's "legitimacy" is to offer negotiations with the Palestinians even as he proceeds unilaterally to annex their land.

On the contrary, Olmert expects largess for the policy. The Israeli prime minister is scheduled to meet George Bush in Washington on 23 May, followed by meetings in Cairo, Amman and London. In each capital he will seek endorsement of his government's core objective in the next parliamentary term.

As stated in the guidelines, this is to "shape the permanent borders of a Jewish state with a democratic majority", preferably "through negotiation and agreement with the Palestinians", but, "in absence of negotiations and agreement with them, on the basis of a broad national agreement within Israel and a deep understanding with Israel's friends abroad, chief among them the US and President George Bush".

Olmert knows he won't get an unconditional acceptance. US diplomats quoted in the Israeli press have already said while Washington would welcome any withdrawal from West Bank territory, it would not accept this as Israel's permanent border, "after which there will no longer be a need for negotiations". This stance will be echoed by Europe and even more so by Egypt and Jordan, who have already called for an international conference to thwart Israel's unilateralism.

But this too will not happen. Instead there will be a confrontation with the Palestinians or a process of managed impasse with the PA, while Israel "converge" Jerusalem and settlement blocs like Ariel behind the wall. The provisional border will then de facto become permanent, predicts Kadima's new Justice Minister Haim Ramon -- for want of any international action against it. "It doesn't matter if the world recognises the fence as our political border. Israelis see it as the border and that, in the end, is what will count," he says. (see p. 6)

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