Olmert's next step

March 29, 2006

Israel edged another step closer toward ending its decades-long occupation of West Bank territory with yesterday's election of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his centrist party, Kadima. Mr. Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem and deputy to Ariel Sharon before the prime minister suffered a stroke in January, has told Israelis that he would unilaterally separate from the Palestinians if his party won. His plan would effectively end Israel's 38-year occupation of land captured during the 1967 war that is home to 2.5 million Palestinians. It would extend and fortify Israel's separation barrier along that route, but it wouldn't necessarily mean peace.

As Israelis went to the polls yesterday, the Palestinian parliament approved a Hamas-dominated Cabinet. The militant group, which holds a majority in parliament, refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist. And Gaza militants continue to lob rockets into southern Israel.

As Mr. Olmert forms a new government, he will look for coalition partners who support his disengagement plan, starting with the center-left Labor Party, which supports a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Mr. Olmert's unilateral disengagement might satisfy most Israelis, who want little to do with Palestinians and view the current Palestinian government as an avowed enemy of the Jewish state. It might rid Israel of the headache and cost of securing large areas of the West Bank, but it can be only a partial solution to the Middle East conflict. The proposal would retain some large Jewish settlements on the West Bank and secure Jerusalem as Israel's capital, both of which are unacceptable to Palestinians.

Decisions by the United States and European allies to withhold aid from the Palestinians because Hamas is a designated terrorist group have exacerbated hardships among Palestinians, which can't benefit Israel if the situation provokes Palestinian militants to violence. It is encouraging that, in declaring victory, Mr. Olmert seems to have recognized that vacating the West Bank won't ensure Israel's security - unless Palestinians see a future for themselves.

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