Ehud Olmert's failed promises

With its broken promises and wasted potential for peacemaking, the era of Ehud Olmert is ending. On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was chosen to replace Olmert as head of the ruling Kadima party. Brought down by corruption allegations and stripped of his party leadership, Olmert is expected to resign as prime minister. After that, he'll stay on as caretaker premier only until Livni can form a government.

At last Sunday's Cabinet meeting, Olmert chose to end his term with the same message with which he began it two years ago. "The Whole Land of Israel is done with," he said, referring to the dream of permanent Israeli rule over the West Bank. "There's no such thing."

For most of Olmert's life, the Whole Land was his dream. His father served as a Knesset member for a hard-line nationalist party, and Olmert followed him into the business. But five years ago, he stunned the nation by switching sides. To remain a democracy and a Jewish state, he said, Israel had to stop ruling over the disenfranchised Palestinians of the occupied territories. Otherwise, he said, Palestinians would give up on a two-state solution and instead demand the right to vote in Israel -- and Jews would become a minority of the electorate in their own country. To avoid that danger, Israel would have to give up most of the West Bank.

In 2006, as head of the new, centrist Kadima party, Olmert was elected on that promise. Addressing parliament as he took office as prime minister, he stressed that his program was "partitioning the land" with the Palestinians. And he pointed out the key obstacle to pulling back: "Continued scattered settlement throughout Judea and Samaria ... endangers the existence of Israel as a Jewish state."

Twenty-eight months later, however, Olmert's plan has gone almost nowhere. He is engaged in an anemic negotiating process with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Meanwhile, settlements "scattered throughout ... Judea and Samaria" keep growing. Official Israeli statistics show 290,000 Israelis living in the West Bank today, an increase of 30,000 in two years. (Those numbers don't include Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.) According to Peace Now's Settlement Watch team, 2,600 housing units are under construction in settlements across the West Bank.

Settlements have one purpose: to prevent an Israeli pullback. Every new family that moves in stands in the way of Olmert's declared goal of a two-state solution.

Why has he worked so hard against himself? To start, Olmert has never faced up to the full implications of his own change of heart. For Israel to withdraw from the West Bank safely, it needs a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Since the collapse of the Oslo process, it's been clear that the only viable basis for an agreement is the pre-1967 Israeli border, with minor adjustments.

Olmert has avoided that hard reality. His aim has been a border roughly following the security fence Israel is building through the West Bank -- and that cuts into Palestinian territory as it goes. A border that follows the fence would mean that Israel would keep about a twelfth of the West Bank, including the heavily populated "settlement blocs" where most settlers live, not too far across the line from Israel proper.

So, while negotiations with Abbas stalled, Olmert's government continued to build in settlements on the side of the fence closer to Israel. But construction also continues on the other side of the fence, in the very areas that Olmert was committed to giving up -- in Kiryat Arba, next to the Palestinian city of Hebron; in Shilo, north of Ramallah; in Yitzhar, near Nablus. This is testimony to the momentum of the settlement movement and its continued support within the government bureaucracy.

Ideologically motivated, intent on digging in, the settlers have taken the initiative to build. That's no surprise. But the Housing Ministry still provides subsidized mortgages. The army protects settlers, even in the small "outpost" settlements established without government approval. Law enforcement bodies ignore homes that appear on the hilltops without building permits. An entrenched bureaucratic culture trumps orders from the top.

It would take a politically strong leader to crack down on this. Olmert is weak. His Kadima party is a breakaway from the right-wing Likud, and he can't count on support from his backbenchers. His governing coalition is flimsy. His public credibility was shattered by his disastrous decision to go to war in Lebanon in 2006 and by multiple investigations against him for corruption. Beyond that, there's the matter of character: Olmert does not radiate determination. He offers cigars; he does not knock heads.

It is confusing to foreign observers that the pace of settlement construction has actually increased since the Bush administration held the Annapolis conference last year and offered support for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But the paradox makes perfect sense. With talks underway, ministers in Olmert's party -- and the premier himself -- are eager to show that Israel will keep the settlement blocs.

Meanwhile, activists in the settlements deep in the West Bank know that a peace deal threatens them and are responding by building more, making a pullout even more difficult.

To be fair, Olmert has partners in this failure. His negotiating partner, Abbas, has been weakened since Hamas seized control of Gaza last year.

And President Bush waited until the last year of his term to promote peace talks, and even then has only done so lackadaisically. So far, the negotiations' only impact has been to provide a shot of adrenaline to settlement construction. Poor diplomacy has proved even more damaging than Bush's previous neglect.

Olmert has squandered the chance to promote his agenda. Worse, the legacy he has left on the West Bank hills will make it harder for the next prime minister to give up that territory. We can only hope that his words -- in contrast to his actions -- have made compromise the obvious choice so that his successor can act more forthrightly.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author, most recently, of "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." He blogs at

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