Alliance and defiance

Israel | Creating a coalition with an enemy within your borders is a tall order for incoming Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Issue: "No way out," May 13, 2006

During the three or four months each year they live in Israel, Eddy and Dmumit Hose visit lifelong friends and enjoy the rich history of their native country. But Mrs. Hose avoids the road to Tiberius if she can (there have been several "incidents" there), and she always enters the shopping mall near her home in Netanya from the back entrance-all three terrorist attacks on the mall took place near the front.

Mr. Hose, 76, smiles at his wife's re-routing tactics, but acknowledges that he, too, views his surroundings through the grid of terrorist attacks. He was at the Netanya shopping mall just hours prior to the 2005 bombing: "Every time I pass through that intersection, I've been aware that it was the third attack there. You're aware of it every time you go to a shopping center or theater." The April 17 suicide bombing in his home town of Tel Aviv is another reminder of the precarious position the tiny nation has been in since its birth-one Mr. Hose fought for-on May 14, 1948. In 2006, the battle over this small plot of real estate hasn't changed much.

But if the security landscape is familiar, the political landscape is changing forever. For the first time in their history, Israelis elected a party other than socialist Labor or hawkish Likud to lead their government. And as the centrist Kadima party steps into the forefront of Israeli politics, its debut involves forming a coalition majority-at least 61 Knesset seats. Kadima's Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert carefully picked his partners, and the parties formalized the deal on May 4.

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Mr. Olmert's criteria centered on his intent to finalize the nation's borders by 2010, beefing up certain Israeli settlement blocks and excluding some Arab towns in the West Bank. Most of East Jerusalem-claimed by Palestinians as their future capital-would remain in Israeli hands under Mr. Olmert's proposal. His plan includes completing the 4-year-old border fence-designed to help prevent terrorist attacks-by the end of the year.

The Pensioners Party was the first to sign on, and a deal with Labor-the second-largest party in the Knesset-unfolded without much difficulty. But convincing the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to join the coalition involved weeks of haggling. The party agreed to sign on only after Mr. Olmert granted a waiver regarding support of any future withdrawals from the West Bank, a concession he hoped he wouldn't have to make.

Mr. Olmert was also courting Yisrael Beiteinu, a party known for a controversial population-exchange proposal that would negate the citizenship of at least 150,000 Arabs and deport them to the Palestinian Authority. "Israel is our home, Palestine is their home," the party's platform states. The proposal places many of Israel's Palestinian Christians-already caught between Muslim and Jewish majorities-at risk of losing their citizenship.

The Russian-immigrant-backed party recently decided against joining the coalition government, though, claiming Mr. Olmert's withdrawal plan caters to the left and compromises national security.

As Mr. Olmert began carving out his leadership, his dovish choice of Labor head Amir Peretz as defense minister raised some eyebrows. The majority of Israel's defense ministers have been legendary war heroes-Mr. Peretz served as a military supplies officer and founded his political career upon social issues.

Further, just as Mr. Olmert began his assigned task of forming the new government, his leadership was put to the test when a suicide bomber blew himself up during Passover at a Tel Aviv falafel restaurant, killing nine people and wounding 60. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the April attack-an unsurprising confession in light of the terrorist organization's refusal to honor the informal cease-fire Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to last year.

Responses to the terrorist attack are perhaps telltale signs of how difficult-if not impossible-will be future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under new leadership. Mr. Abbas-elected separately and struggling to maintain control of his Hamas-led parliament-condemned the attack as contrary to Palestinian interests. He recently warned the new leadership that he had the power to dissolve the parliament and is trying to garner support from the international community for further peace negotiations, with or without Hamas. Hamas, on the other hand, condoned the attack, calling it a legitimate response to Israeli aggression.

The Palestinian government, meanwhile, is crippled from international isolation and an aid embargo that has left the leaders unable to pay more than 150,000 government employees. Yet the government still refuses to change its defiant stance toward Israel.

Although it has partially agreed to a cease-fire with Israel, speculation abounds that it is merely allowing Islamic Jihad to serve as its unofficial military wing. With a designated terrorist organization in power that refuses to acknowledge Israel's existence or renounce violence, Mr. Abbas' Fatah party is continually at odds with the Palestinian parliament.


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