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Israel Election Result Marks Uncertain Shift
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The decisions made by both Israelis and Palestinians on Tuesday will have a far-reaching impact on the future of Palestine, Israel and the Middle East as a whole.

They have chosen two men to manage their relations, and the relations of the region.

The victory of Israel's centrist party Kadima "Forward" in Hebrew in the election on Tuesday will determine the path of the Middle East peace process.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, leader of Kadima, vowed to adopt his unilateral disengagement programme. Disengagement will dominate Israel's relations with Palestine.

Tuesday's election was a de facto referendum on Olmert's plan. Now he has got the mandate for his proposal.

The key issue of this campaign was Olmert's plan to make formal Israel's divorce from the Palestinians by annexing several large blocs of West Bank settlements, uprooting tens of thousands of Jewish settlers from other settlements, and completing the barrier along the West Bank to define Israel's borders. His plan calls for a Jerusalem wholly under Israeli control and for Israel to control the Old City and its holy sites. All of this would be completed by 2010, Olmert promises, and be accomplished regardless of the demands of the Palestinians if negotiations prove impossible.
Given that Ariel Sharon had already forged the template of giving up land when he pulled Israel out of the Gaza Strip in September, what his successor is proposing is not a complete surprise to the Israelis, the Palestinians and the world.

Kadima's authority will be determined by the security issues Israel will face in the future. Winning the election, the party has its hands full continuing its unilateral withdrawal programme. Israel's security, however, will count on Kadima's ability to govern.

Israel's assault on the Jericho prison before the election was no doubt to bolster Olmert's strongman credentials.

Nevertheless, Israelis' confidence in Kadima has not crystallized, as shown by the apathetic reaction to the election a turnout of only about 60 percent.

The raid on the Palestinian prison is worrisome because it widens the chasm in Israeli-Palestinian relations. It graphically shows how easily this conflict could return to a military-style confrontation, or last year's fragile ceasefire that was overtaken by a barrage of attacks and counterattacks.

Olmert said that Israel will continue to negotiate with Palestinians, with the exception of Hamas, and will allow them to have a state. He demanded that the Palestinians be willing to compromise in return.

As Israelis made their way to the polling booths on Tuesday, the Palestinian Parliament approved the Hamas cabinet and program. Incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told Al-Jazeera television that he opposed Olmert's plan.

The Hamas government will be in a very difficult situation.

Israeli officials have ruled out talks with Hamas unless the Islamic group renounces violence and accepts Israel's right to exist, demands Hamas has so far rejected. The US and its European allies have withheld millions in economic aid to the Palestinians because of the Hamas position.

How Olmert and Haniyeh will deal with each other is a big question mark.

Kadima's unilateral withdrawal plan will bring unpredictable change to relations.

In the long run, the plan will leave the Middle East in crisis. By unilaterally demarcating borders with the Palestinians, Israel would annex some controversial areas including East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Further, Palestinian refugees wanting to return to their homeland will be left into limbo. The Palestinians will have no alternatives to these plans. In other words, Israel will drive the Palestinians into a corner.

The parliamentary election in Israel marks an important shift in the country's Middle East policy. Its consequences, however, remain unknown.

(China Daily March 30, 2006)


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