“Israeli policy won’t change with a new PM”

CAIRO (IPS) - With Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent resignation announcement, the self-proclaimed Jewish state is headed for new leadership. Egyptian commentators, though, entertain few hopes that Olmert’s successor — whoever he or she may be — will temper Israel’s hard-line approach to the peace process.

“Israeli policy won’t change with a new prime minister,” Abdelaziz Shadi, political science professor and coordinator of the Israeli studies program at Cairo University told IPS. “Any new Israeli leader — of any political party — is sure to maintain the usual Israeli policies of murder, assassination and illegal settlement building.”

On 30 July, Olmert announced his resignation as prime minister, pending the election of a new leader of his Kadima Party. “When a new Kadima Party chairman is chosen, I will resign as prime minister,” Omert told reporters.

Olmert’s popular standing had been on the wane since Israel’s humiliating 2006 military defeat by Lebanese resistance group Hizballah. His reputation was further tarnished in recent months by a host of serious corruption allegations.

“The announcement comes as little surprise,” said Shadi. “Israel suffered a number of major setbacks under his leadership, especially the defeat in 2006.”

Olmert, who succeeded Ariel Sharon as Israeli prime minister in early 2006, “was never more than a transitional figure, with little impact on Israeli foreign policy,” added Shadi.

As it now stands, Olmert is expected to stay on as PM until internal party elections are held in mid-September. If his successor as Kadima chairman is unable to forge a workable coalition, however, Olmert could remain in office until early parliamentary elections in March 2009. Currently, the party controls only 29 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

Kadima was first established by Sharon in 2005 with the ostensible aim of creating a centrist alternative to the right-wing Likud Party. Under Olmert, Kadima continues to hold talks with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) — which have yet to produce a single breakthrough — while simultaneously isolating resistance faction Hamas in the Gaza Strip by way of an internationally sanctioned embargo of the territory.

The two frontrunners to succeed Olmert as Kadima party chairman are Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. Despite media predictions of a Livni victory in next month’s party elections, Shadi says the smart money is on Mofaz.

“Mofaz enjoys considerable credibility on the Israeli street,” he said. “He comes from the military establishment and, as a student of Sharon, he could be the only one with the strength to convince Israeli public opinion to make concessions in the peace process.

“Livni would be a relatively weak prime minister,” added Shadi. “Her lack of military experience and capabilities, in contrast to Mofaz, represents a major weakness.”

Would-be contenders from other parties, meanwhile, are waiting in the wings for the next parliamentary election. Here, frontrunners include Ehud Barak, current defense minister and head of the Labor Party, and Likud Party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes any form of concession to the Palestinians.

Shadi, however, expects Kadima — despite the travails of its current leader — to maintain its hold on power, dismissing the other party chiefs as “spent forces” on Israel’s political stage.

“Netanhayu’s day is over. Israelis still remember his inability to provide security when he served as PM in the 1990s,” Shadi said. “As for the Labor Party, the days of its historic leadership — typified by [slain Israeli PM Yitzhak] Rabin — ended long ago. All the current party leaders lack the weight of their predecessors.”

Whoever takes the reins of government in Israel, few local commentators expect any significant change in terms of long-standing Israeli policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. These policies include frequent military assaults (often resulting in high civilian death tolls) and assassinations in Palestinian areas, the hermetic siege of the Gaza Strip and the continued construction of Jewish-only settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

“No matter who takes Olmert’s place, the peace process will continue to face enormous obstacles,” said Shadi. “From the Arab perspective, all the contenders — Mofaz, Livni and Netanyahu — are equally unpropitious.

“In any case, the Arab position on the Palestine issue — based on the 2002 Arab Initiative — will remain unchanged,” he added.

First tabled at the 2002 Arab League summit in Lebanon, the Arab Initiative offers full Arab recognition of Israel in return for key Arab demands on land, refugees and the status of Jerusalem. Until now, Israel has adamantly rejected the terms of the offer.

According to Gamal Zahran, political science professor at Suez Canal University and independent member of parliament, major shifts in Israeli domestic politics represent little more than theater, staged with the aim of pre-empting a final settlement on Palestine.

“Whenever the Israelis come under pressure to reach a workable agreement with the Arabs, they come up with dramatic new distractions, like resignations or early elections — anything to put off a settlement,” Zahran told IPS.

Zahran scoffed at past promises by Olmert — and backed by US President George W. Bush — to reach a mutually acceptable final agreement on the outlines of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008.

“Every year they promise the establishment of a Palestinian state, and every time something happens to derail it,” he said. “It’s obvious: the Israelis are just killing time in order to maintain the status quo.”

Echoing a sentiment that has become increasingly prevalent as official negotiations founder, Zahran added: “A Palestinian state will never come into being except by means of armed resistance.”

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2008). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.

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