Friday, March 31, 2006

Editorial: Israel now must talk to Hamas

A change of epoch-making proportion has swept Israeli politics. For the first time, the country has given a centrist party the power to form a government. More important still, that party is ready to call time on the Zionist vision of a Jewish homeland throughout the biblical Israel. Such is the impulse for moderation among Israelis after years of conflict that it could not be undone even by militant Hamas' triumph in recent Palestinian elections.

The Kadima Party's victory was the more remarkable in that it has existed for only five months, and had to survive the incapacitation of its founder, Ariel Sharon.

Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister in waiting, overcame not only a lack of charisma but the encumbrance of being a career politician in a state that traditionally draws its leaders from the ranks of the Army or the resistance. That, in itself, spoke volumes of Israelis' desire to move away from extreme politics.

But the voters shied away from giving Kadima anything like a free hand. To form a coalition, it will need the support of the Labour Party and at least one of the array of minority parties. Kadima, which won 28 seats, had set its sights on holding 40-plus in the 120-strong Knesset. Its disappointment probably owed much to a degree of nervousness about the scale of Mr Olmert's plan for achieving a lasting peace with the Palestinians, an agenda he spelt out in terms far blunter than Mr Sharon would ever have contemplated. His proposal, if Hamas continues to refuse to recognise the Jewish state, would see Israel unilaterally set its final national border within four years by removing isolated settlements in the occupied West Bank while expanding the biggest and closest blocs there. This would involve shifting up to 80,000 settlers, a huge step up from the 8500 controversially removed from Gaza.

This go-it-alone approach overtakes the internationally backed peace "roadmap", which envisaged a cessation of violence and mutual steps towards the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. To a significant degree, Kadima has seized the moment. The roadmap's struggle to gain traction has hardly been helped by the Palestinians' radical electoral choice. The international community, and particularly the United States, will have nothing to do with Hamas unless it renounces violence and recognises Israel. Mr Olmert, by painting his plan as a step forward that requires a painful compromise by Israel, will seek the Bush Administration's backing with some confidence.

The Palestinians want nothing of this. They see Israel retaining parts of the West Bank, which it seized in the 1967 war, even though all settlements there have been deemed illegal by the World Court. This grab, they say, denies them a viable state.

Already, a gulf is apparent. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' reaction to Kadima's victory was to signal his willingness to implement the roadmap "if the Israeli Government is ready".

It is difficult to envisage that a lasting peace, and a lasting frontier, can be secured by a unilateral approach. At some point, there will have to be meaningful dialogue, and a settlement, with the Palestinians. Something perhaps along the lines proposed by Labour, Mr Olmert's principal coalition ally, which advocates resumed peace talks with Mr Abbas - who would act as an intermediary with Hamas - and greater territorial concessions.

The best hope for progress may lie in some of Labour's policy rubbing off on Kadima. The Israeli people have confirmed their wish for moderation. Their new government appears willing to pursue peace in a spirit of compromise. But the eventual solution will have to be one that satisfies Israelis and Palestinians alike.

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