Election politics show Israel's drift from peace negotiations

The new and favored Kadima party promises to establish borders on its own.

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The billboards have been going up, and each night's TV schedule is punctuated by a 40-minute block of state-funded political advertisements. Israel's voters and 15 political parties are preparing for an election March 28.

The choices they face there have been transformed by the upheavals the country's politics have seen in the past eight months - the clear frontrunner is the Kadima party, meaning "forward," which did not even exist until November. The most distinctive feature of the new party's platform, moreover, is that it turns its back on 58 years of Israeli commitment to negotiating peace with its neighbors, promising voters instead that a Kadima-led government is ready and eager to draw Israel's borders quite unilaterally.

On March 8 the party's head, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, spelled out his intention that by 2010, "Israel will be disengaged from the vast majority of the Palestinian population, within new borders." These permanent borders would, he said, be close to the line of the present separation barrier in the West Bank, with some adjustments. And Israel would determine their location on its own.

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This unilateralism appeals strongly to voters who, since late 2000, have been very disillusioned with the idea of trying to negotiate a peace with the Palestinians. "In past elections, the parties all adopted strong positions on the issue of peace," commentator Akiva Eldar told me. "But this time, the voters aren't looking for peace - they're looking for quiet."

Kadima's unilateralism builds on the success of the step taken last summer by now-ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when his government unilaterally withdrew all Israel's troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. That success punctured the myth of near untouchability previously enjoyed by the country's well organized networks of militant settlers. Strategic analyst Yossi Alpher told me that, "Now, Olmert should be able to withdraw settlers from the small, isolated outposts in the West Bank fairly easily." Mr. Alpher and other analysts agree, too, that another important factor spurring Israelis' support for unilateralism is the continuing feeling that "there is no one to negotiate with" on the Palestinian side. Hamas's victory in the recent Palestinian elections only strengthened that feeling.

One recent opinion poll showed the damage the founding of Kadima has caused to the two veteran "mainstream" parties in the country - especially Mr. Sharon's and Mr. Olmert's previous party, the Likud. It indicated that Kadima could win 37 of the 120 seats in the new Knesset, while Likud's presence would dive from 40 to 17 seats. (Labor would go down from 22 to 19 seats.)

Much could still change between now and election day. But Kadima looks set to sweep to victory March 28, borne by a near-tsunami of voters' support for the idea of simply turning their backs on the Palestinians, and not bothering with negotiations.

The border Olmert plans to create encompasses less land than some Israeli right-wingers would like. But he said he aims to keep within the border key settlements around Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank. These include Maale Adumim, whose connection to the Jerusalem settlements would cut the West Bank into two. He will also keep the fertile bottomlands of the Jordan Valley. No Palestinian leader would ever agree to this as a permanent outcome.

Olmert told Israelis that these plans had been shared with the Bush administration, which "refrained from public comment." He implied this gave him at least an yellow light to go ahead.

The concept of unilateral action in the West Bank builds on the popularity - in Israel - of the "separation barrier" that already snakes deep into the West Bank, keeping large settlement blocs connected to Israel and walling out the Palestinian cities, towns, and villages. Some commentators say that Olmert's promise to turn this barrier into a permanent border is directed largely to the 20 percent of Israelis of Russian origin. They are thought to favor clarity in their leaders' platforms, rather than the ambiguity that many veteran Israelis live with. The significance of the Russian vote is clear from the fact that nearly all the parties have produced election materials in Russian as well as Hebrew. Many of their broadcasts have been produced with Russian subtitles.

Olmert still offers a passing nod to the idea of negotiations, promising to give the new Palestinian government a last chance to recognize Israel and formally renounce violence. But there is little chance of that happening. His unilateral plan will most likely proceed.

What will this mean for US policy? For nearly 40 years now, sponsorship of Israeli-Arab peace talks has been the keystone of Washington's engagement with the Middle East. If there are no negotiations, and Israel proceeds with annexing large portions of the West Bank, this will present Washington with some tough dilemmas.

Helena Cobban is writing a book on violence and its legacies.

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