Olmert Pledges to Move Israel Towards a Final Border Deal
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SPENCER MICHELS: After a night of celebrations, Ehud Olmert, soon to be prime minister in his own right, turned to the task of building a coalition government. His centrist Kadima Party won the most seats, but fell far short of a majority in the Israeli Knesset, or parliament.
At a victory rally early this morning, Olmert vowed to pursue his plan to physically separate Israelis from the Palestinians by withdrawing from large chunks of the occupied West Bank, either unilaterally or in negotiations with the Palestinians.
EHUD OLMERT, Prime Minister-elect of Israel (through translator): In the coming period, we will move to set the final borders of the state of Israel, a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. We will try to achieve this in an agreement with the Palestinians.
We are prepared to compromise, give up parts of our beloved land of Israel, painfully remove Jews who live there, to allow you the conditions to achieve your hopes and to live in a state in peace and quiet.
SPENCER MICHELS: Under Olmert’s plan, the West Bank would look roughly like this: an Israeli security zone along the Jordan River, retaining some large settlements and creating at least a temporary border following the security fence now being built.
To get the plan through the 120-seat parliament, Olmert will need allies, since his party, founded in November by the now comatose Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, won fewer than a quarter of the seats, 28 in all.
Possible partners in the coalition: the Labour Party, which placed second, winning 20 Knesset seats, and other smaller parties, such as the religious group Shas.
One group far less likely to be in the coalition is former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party, which suffered its worst defeat in decades, garnering only 11 seats.
A large share of the traditional right-wing vote and a surprising 14 Knesset seats was won by a party led by Russian immigrant Avigdor Lieberman, who wants to reduce the number of Israeli Arabs by moving borders.
While Israel was preparing for a new government, the Palestinians were also changing the guard. A 24-member cabinet, made up mostly of Hamas loyalists, was sworn into office by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas wants to maintain existing agreements with Israel and a negotiated settlement. He has repeatedly criticized unilateral action by Israel.
He had this to reaction to Kadima’s victory.
MAHMOUD ABBAS, Palestinian President (through translator): The results do not change anything unless Olmert changes his agenda and gives up his unilateral ideas.
SPENCER MICHELS: Today, the U.S. reinforced its policy that it considers Hamas a terrorist organization and said it would not have contact with any Hamas agency.
MARGARET WARNER: So what do these parallel political changes in the Israeli and Palestinian governments mean for the prospects of resolving their conflict? For that, we turn to an Israeli and a Palestinian.
David Tal is a visiting professor at the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel at Emory University. He’s a member of the history faculty at Tel Aviv University. And Nadia Hijab is a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, a Washington think-tank. A former journalist, she’s written widely on Palestinian-Israeli issues.
And welcome to you, both.
Professor Tal, there were Israeli commentators who said this was a boring election; 62 percent turned out which, would be great here, but it’s very low by Israeli standards. How significant are these results?
DAVID TAL, Tel Aviv University: I think that these elections are one of the most important elections in the history of Israel, because it is the first time that the Israelis made a very clear statement about their wish to see Israel withdrawing from the West Bank.
Ehud Olmert when to that elections with a clear statement about his intention to act, either through agreement or unilaterally. And the Israelis endorsed and accepted his statement and he and other parties that are associated or accepted his ideas about the future steps to be taken regarding the West Bank.
MARGARET WARNER: And how does it look to Palestinians on the other side of the barrier?
NADIA HIJAB, Institute for Palestine Studies: Well, for Palestinians who are actually living in a state of siege and occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, it looks like a continuation of unilateral imposition of Israel’s policies on the Palestinians, because, while the Israelis are saying that they are willing to give up some West Bank land, in fact, they’re supposed to give up all West Bank land.
And in a sense, the fact that they did move from Gaza shows it can be done. And the fact that they’re willing to move about 80,000 settlers out of the West Bank shows it can be done, but that leaves still another 320,000 settlers to go.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Tal, do you think that Prime Minister Olmert’s plan is set in stone, that is that he does plan to withdraw from most but not all of the West Bank, and he’s just going to go-it-alone if he can’t negotiate?
DAVID TAL: I think that he wants to do that. I think that he was very clear about that yesterday evening in his victory speech when he said that he would rather make the next steps together with the Palestinian Authority.
But the way it looks now, I don’t think it will be possible to reach to any agreement with the Palestinians at this stage. So it is either just waiting and sitting, which is not good for Israel, or taking actions. And I think that Olmert is quite determined to get what he wants to do.
The problem is whether he’s capable of doing that, if it’s practical. This is another issue which is of no less importance. I’m not sure that he can do that practically, but definitely he wants to do that.
MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Hijab, of course, as we know, Olmert has at least said that he would negotiate with the Palestinians if Hamas would recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce violence.
Do you think there is any chance, given all the international pressure you’re seeing now, given the things that happened today with the United States and Canada, that this Hamas-led government will find a way to satisfy those in the interests of having talks?
NADIA HIJAB: Well, Hamas is interested in talks that lead somewhere, because they’ve seen the PLO having been dragged in talks since 1993, and all that’s happened during the period of negotiations is a doubling of Israeli settlers. So they have no vested interest in saying, yes, we want to talk for the sake of talking.
Having said that, however, I think their position today is a lot more moderate already than it has been in the past few months. For example, their leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, said that they would go for a permanent peace with Israel. Hitherto, they’ve talked about, like, a hundred-year truce, but they can see that that doesn’t go far enough for the international community.
But in exchange for permanent peace, they want a full withdrawal and recognition of Palestinian rights. And that really resonates with the Palestinian people, because the Palestinians look at the approach adopted by the PLO and Fatah and see that it’s only got them nothing…
MARGARET WARNER: The previous Palestinian negotiators, yes.
NADIA HIJAB: Exactly. And not only that’s got them nothing, but it’s got them much worse than nothing, because they’re now trapped in tiny little enclaves. Just today, Israel announced that Palestinians can’t use the checkpoint from the main West Bank town of Ramallah to get to Jerusalem any more, for example.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Tal, when you spoke earlier, you talked about whether, as a practical matter, if Prime Minister Olmert could carry out this separation. What did you mean by that? I mean, does that have anything to do with the fact that he actually only got less than a quarter of the vote or are you talking about other difficulties?
DAVID TAL: No, I’m not — politically, it can get the resolution. I think that there are enough votes to support him in the future Knesset. There will be enough votes to support his plan; that won’t be a problem politically.
Because these elections were, among other things, quite clearly about that issue. And the issue was whether Israel is going with Olmert on his plan to start pullout of the territories, and there is quite majority among the Israelis who are ready and willing to do that. So, politically, that won’t be a problem; I don’t think there will be a problem.
The problem is doing that in practice. How you are taking out — the example of the Gaza Strip is quite misleading, because the number of the people, the Israelis in the Gaza Strip, the nature of the Gaza Strip, the structure of the Gaza Strip, all that made the pulling out the Israelis out of the Gaza Strip quite easily, relatively.
The situation in the West Bank is completely different. And to take so many resources, that I’m not sure that Israel has these resources, the only way to do that will be through an agreement with the settlers themselves.
Otherwise, it will cause so many problems and so many troubles that I don’t see that Israel can really make that. And I don’t see in the current situation that the settlers will be ready to come to terms with the Israeli government on that. So…
MARGARET WARNER: Let me just ask you to follow up on something Ms. Hijab said. She indicated that maybe there was some movement in Hamas on the question — I mean, you didn’t use the word soften, but there was some moderation.
Do you think that Olmert is willing to wait and see if Hamas will moderate or do you think he’s going to move forward pretty smartly on this unilateral separation?
DAVID TAL: Olmert is speaking about a period of about a year and a half to prepare the plans and to see how things are going to be done. And during that time, it is my understanding that he’s planning to see also if there are channels of communication with the Hamas or any other Palestinian bodies with which it will be possible to reach an agreement.
I think that talking about the Hamas moderation is really wishful thinking. I don’t see that moderation. And the fact that the Hamas is using softer words to express ideas that once were expressed in much more brutal way doesn’t make the message, the body, the content of the things, different.
I think that…
MARGARET WARNER: OK. Excuse me.
Let me get Ms. Hijab in here. Excuse me; I keep mispronouncing your name. Is there anything the Palestinians as a practical matter can do about it? If Olmert proceeds with this plan, having run an election based on it, what can the Palestinians do?
NADIA HIJAB: At the moment, they’re not in a position to do very much. And, in fact, if Olmert had wanted really to negotiate with Palestinians, he had Mahmoud Abbas for the last period, the Palestinian president, you know, that he could have negotiated or Sharon could have negotiated with him during the withdrawal from Gaza.
So he made it very clear he wants to be unilateral. He wants to take a lot of West Bank land, and the fact that Israel wants this land doesn’t mean that it’s entitled to it.
MARGARET WARNER: I understand that. But I’m just asking, I mean, what do you think the reaction will be? Maybe let me phrase it differently.
If this plan proceeds, do you think we’d see confrontation with the Palestinians? Do you think we’d see violence? Or is the Palestinian going to be pretty powerless?
NADIA HIJAB: People are talking about a third intifada or a third uprising by the Palestinians, having had two uprisings against Israel occupation. It’s not quite clear what form that would take.
But I don’t think people are completely powerless, because there is quite a strong international movement of support for the Palestinians, not amongst governments so much, but amongst peoples.
And I think if Israel were to come in and say, “We’re just going to do this thing,” the Palestinians may call on their international — and then I don’t see how Israel can get the international community to buy its unilateral imposition, its annexation.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Tal, a brief, final word from you. Do you think that Israel and the Palestinian entity are now going to enter a period of coexistence and Olmert can go ahead and do what he wants to do, or could we see confrontation, even violence?
DAVID TAL: Again, it really depends on the way both sides are going to act. I think that, basically, the intentions of Olmert are to reach to an agreement with the Palestinians and to move ahead together.
I think that what we see now is only the starting of the possible negotiations, and it really depends on the way — I think that the demand that Hamas will recognize, will accept existence of the state of Israel, is a very, very basic demand which the Hamas did not provide yet.
So I think that, given the right conditions, it is possible to negotiate. The Israeli unilateral acts are not something that are written from above; it is possible to change those. And we have enough time to change those. Nothing happened yet.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me get…
DAVID TAL: There are only talks about that. So I think that there is a possibility of negotiations. I don’t think that Olmert is running out that possibility completely.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Professor Tal, Nadia Hijab, thank you, both.