Promises, Promises

Is Olmert’s pledge of West Bank disengagement a bold move or just politics as usual?

Ehud Olmert  

It’s a truism of electoral politics that you can’t believe what candidates say. Nikita Khrushchev once claimed they’d “promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.” The big questions of next Tuesday’s Israeli elections are: Can Israelis trust the promises of Ehud Olmert—the head of the Kadima Party, Ariel Sharon’s designated heir, and the election’s all-but-certain victor—and can Olmert deliver on his pledges?

In February 2003, just after Likud won the last election, Sharon met with Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna for a long conversation in which it was determined that Labor would not join the ruling coalition. Mitzna had campaigned with a very clear message: Evacuate Gaza. Sharon—dismissive as only he could be—lectured him for an hour on the “strategic importance of [Gaza settlement] Netzarim and the historical significance of [Gaza settlement] Kfar Darom.”

Now, three years later, Sharon, Mitzna, Netzarim, and Kfar Darom are all out of the picture. One fell ill, one quit national politics, two were evacuated—and by the politician who lectured against such a move. If you trusted Sharon on Gaza in 2003, you were disappointed—or perhaps convinced—by the end of 2005. This time around, it’s Olmert who wants Israelis to trust him on disengagement.

Olmert, long in the shadow of Sharon’s leadership and popularity, was able to take control of this election by doing something outrageous: telling the voters the controversial truth before he got elected. Well—if you really believe it’s the truth. He promised to evacuate many more settlements in the West Bank and to unilaterally set Israel’s final borders. And he said so publicly, unapologetically, and proudly. He also said that “anyone who is not prepared to be a partner to [the plan] and the diplomatic agenda cannot be a part of the coalition’s agenda.” In other words, they couldn’t be in the government.

Now Israel’s voters have a stark choice—either they accept Olmert’s plan or they reject it—a choice to be made on the way to the polls. But there may be another, hidden, choice: Israelis can either believe that Olmert is going to execute his plan (and, if so, they should then move to the other stark choice of acceptance or rejection), or hesitate to believe him. And then what?

The leader of the right-wing-pretending-to-be-centrist Israel Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, was quickest to offer this choice. At the beginning of the week, Lieberman—whose party was assumed by many to be a future coalition partner for Kadima—said that he would not support the West Bank disengagement. Olmert reacted by disqualifying parties who took this view from joining the ruling coalition. But Lieberman didn’t leave it at that: “What do you expect Olmert to say five days before the elections?” he asked, with his usual matter-of-fact cynicism. “I suggest you speak with him five days after, and then you’ll hear a different tune”.

Now, there’s no reason to suspect that Olmert does not mean what he says. However, there are good reasons to think that things are not going to be as simple as he’d like—strategically or politically. The West Bank is a complicated area, much closer to the central metropolitan area of Israel than Gaza is, and evacuating it raises many questions about security and stability. Olmert believes that the world—eager to see Israel surrendering its occupation of the territories—will support his move. But will it? Olmert promised Israelis that he will determine the nation’s final borders—but it’s not at all clear that the international community would endorse Olmert’s map of the Middle East.

And political troubles can easily mount with such an ambitious project. Evacuating so many people—in exchange for, well, nothing—might not be a popular move after all, even if voters support it now.

Truth be told, skepticism was a common commodity in Israel before the Gaza withdrawal. Many people—me included—took a long time to accept that Sharon was serious enough and determined enough to make it happen. But Olmert is not Sharon. He does not possess the same commanding presence. Israelis didn’t vote for Sharon because he told them what he was going to do but because they trusted him to do the right thing at the right time—even if it was the exact opposite of what he had been preaching just a couple of months earlier. Olmert doesn’t have this luxury.

So, yes, it’s nice to know what your future prime minister intends to do with the time you give him in office. And yes, it’s good to consider different policies. And yes, Olmert has managed to step out of the paralyzing shadow of his predecessor. But knowing he is a career politician; and knowing he made his promises so close to the election after two weeks of declining poll numbers; and knowing that this plan of his is more of a general idea than a detailed strategy; and knowing how fluid and unstable the region is; it is not unreasonable to suspect that all the praise and celebration might prove, in the end, to be premature.