At one point in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, the hero Howard Roark is approached by the conniving villain who wants to destroy him, Elsworth Toohey. Toohey offers Roark an opportunity to express his true feelings. “Why don’t you tell me what you think of me?” Toohey asks. “But I don’t think of you,” Roark responds.
When the terrorist group Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January, many observers predicted that it would shake up Israeli politics and benefit the hard-line Likud Party led by Benjamin Netanyahu. But in Tuesday’s elections, amid record low turnout, Israeli voters collectively sent a message to Palestinians: We don’t think of you.
Not only did interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima Party win the most seats in Israel’s Knesset on a platform of disengagement from the Palestinians, but other parties that made strong showings campaigned on domestic matters rather than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Labor Party came in second place after running on issues such as raising the minimum wage and increasing education funding. There was even a surprisingly strong showing for the Pensioners’ Party that was built on a demand for benefits for the elderly. Netanyahu’s Likud, which opposed withdrawal and called for a more hawkish stance toward the Palestinians, had disappointing results.
For decades, Israeli politics has fluctuated from right to left as if it were run by a metronome. When Israelis feared the government was becoming too soft, they moved to the right. When they were worried the government was becoming too harsh, they moved to the left. But the policies of both sides of this struggle always centered around Palestinians: either fighting the Palestinians more fiercely or negotiating with them more openly.
ON TUESDAY, Israelis instead chose a third option that is Israel-centric. Building on the legacy of Ariel Sharon, who still lies in a coma, Olmert has pledged to remove thousands of Jewish settlers from the West Bank and focus on defending borders that will be defined unilaterally, if necessary.
The policy of disengagement arose from several realizations by Israelis. They cannot wait around for the Palestinians to produce a legitimate peace partner and they cannot expect to resolve the conflict by military force alone. Also, demographic trends in the occupied territories favor the Palestinians.
While disengagement is a sensible strategy, it could prove dangerous if it is not handled properly. Critics of the policy argue that evacuating Jewish settlers and giving up land without concessions emboldens Palestinian terrorists by convincing them that their tactics are working.
Sharon understood this danger, which is why he remained vigilant against terrorism as he planned for last summer’s pullout from the Gaza Strip. Despite international opposition, Sharon built a security fence that helped reduce suicide bombings to a trickle. He did not hesitate to use military force when necessary and he ordered targeted assassinations against leaders of terrorist groups such as Hamas.
When Sharon became incapacitated from a stroke in January, Israel lost a leader who not only had a sensible strategy, but the steely resolve and sheer will to implement it. His stature and hawkish bona fides comforted Israelis who may have otherwise been jittery about the Gaza pullout.
Olmert, who served as Sharon’s deputy prime minister, clearly has a firm conceptual grasp of the disengagement strategy. It remains unclear whether Olmert will be as willing as Sharon to use military force when necessary, or whether he could potentially buckle under international pressure and attempt to negotiate with Hamas down the road. A policy of withdrawal coupled with an embrace of empty diplomacy with Hamas would be disastrous.
But there have been some encouraging signs. Olmert has said repeatedly that he will not deal with Hamas. Also, as acting prime minister, he ordered a raid on a Palestinian Authority jail in Jericho earlier this month to take custody of prisoners who are wanted for the killing of an Israeli tourism minister. Hamas leaders and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had indicated the prisoners would be released.
If Olmert does emerge as a strong leader, there is a chance that Israel will end up with a country that has permanent, defensible, borders. And Israelis can look forward to holding more elections in the future in which Palestinians don’t matter.