Ehud Olmert faces tough tests before March election

jerusalem | Widely praised for the low-key and sensitive manner in which he has taken over from ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert is the odds-on favorite to win Israel’s March 28 general election.

But the acting prime minister faces a number of severe early tests, and his continued popularity depends on how he copes.

First there are a number of delicate issues regarding Palestinian elections Jan. 25. Olmert has decided to allow voting in East Jerusalem, and likely will have to decide in the immediate aftermath what Israel’s attitude will be toward a Palestinian government including or even dominated by the terrorist group Hamas.

Then there is a potential flashpoint in Hebron, where young, right-wing Jewish extremists have been defying police and soldiers and challenging Olmert’s authority.

How Olmert deals with the Hebron challenge could set the tone for something much bigger — future Israeli withdrawals from large parts of the West Bank. The standoff has been over the government’s intention to evict Jewish settlers from Arab property in the town’s vegetable market. The settlers say the property originally was Jewish-owned, and therefore claim legal title to it.

Last week, young radicals from all over the West Bank converged on Hebron to confront police and soldiers tasked with the evacuation. The radicals, many of them masked, went on a rampage Sunday, Jan. 15, destroying and burning Palestinian property and pelting Israeli security forces with stones and eggs.

Faced with the settler challenge, Olmert has been talking tough. In a government meeting Monday, Jan. 16 he banged his fist on the table and promised zero tolerance toward the extremists, whom he described as “a particularly violent group.”

The immediate result was an army order declaring the disputed market a closed military zone, and instructing soldiers and police to eject anyone who doesn’t live there. By the next day most of the outside settlers had been sent packing.

Olmert’s next vital decision may be what to do about Hamas. By allowing Palestinians to vote in Jerusalem and Hamas to participate in the election, he already has laid himself open to a storm of right-wing criticism. Likud’s Silvan Shalom charged that Olmert has triggered a process that will lead to Israel negotiating with a terrorist organization that doesn’t recognize the Jewish state.

There is talk of Olmert flying to Washington soon after the Palestinian ballot to coordinate positions on Hamas with the Bush administration. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said that to participate in government, Hamas will have to accept all previous Palestinian agreements with Israel, including recognition of Israel.

That leads to Olmert’s third big decision. His position on peacemaking with the Palestinians has been to insist that the internationally approved “road map” plan is the only game in town. But if Hamas’ inclusion in a Palestinian government makes talks impossible, will Olmert be ready to go into more detail than Sharon about possible unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank?

Former Mossad analyst Yossi Alpher, now co-editor of the Web site, thinks he will.

“Olmert — who, to his credit, started talking about disengagement and the need to avoid a South African scenario at least a year before Sharon — may feel a need to be more explicit on these issues to ensure that the public understands why he is different from Likud and Labor,’ Alpher says.

The decisions for Olmert are particularly tricky because they occur in the run-up to an election and could have electoral fallout. Moreover, whatever Olmert does will be measured against what people think Sharon would have done.

So far Olmert is riding high: Polls give his Kadima Party between 40 and 52 seats in the 120-member Knesset. That’s more than its two closest rivals, Labor and Likud, put together.

Still, mistakes on the key issues could hurt Olmert’s electoral prospects — and also prove costly for Israel.