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With Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's new government set to get off the ground next week, the most pressing question that the world is asking is whether Olmert has the leadership, political stability and international backing to implement his plan to withdraw unilaterally from most of the West Bank.
The way Olmert handled the political horse-trading involved in the formation of his government over the past week raised questions even among his closest supporters in the Kadima party.
Behind the scenes, they criticized him for offering Labor too many ministries and then trying to take one back in the face of public outcry; for tricking Labor chairman Amir Peretz into forgoing deputy ministers; and for breaking his promise to Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center head Uriel Reichman to appoint him education minister, and allowing him to hear about it for the first time on the radio.
They warned that such mishandling of internal political negotiations did not bode well for the negotiations Olmert will soon be engaged in with the Palestinians and the Western world over the West Bank's future.
But MK Otniel Schneller, one of Olmert's strongest defenders in Kadima, says Olmert's background and personality make him the ideal prime minister to carry out the convergence plan that he believes will finalize Israel's permanent border.
Schneller, who is one of four kippa-wearing Kadima MKs, may appear at first glance to be an unlikely supporter of Olmert and convergence. A resident of the Michmash settlement near Jericho, he is a former director-general of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. Part of former prime minister Ehud Barak's delegation to the 2000 Camp David summit, he decided in the wake of the failed talks that Israel had to withdraw from most of Judea and Samaria unilaterally.
"Olmert has many good characteristics that will help him carry out the plan," Schneller said in an interview at his makeshift temporary office in the Knesset. "He is a Jew who loves the land no less than the settlers. He is not forceful and he believes in dialogue."
Schneller believes that dialogue with the settlers is one of three keys to ensuring the success of convergence. He hinted that talks behind the scenes have already begun in which Olmert will try to persuade the settlers that a withdrawal is in Israel's best interest.
"We have to build a win-win-win situation," Schneller said. "A Palestinian state without requiring any commitments from them is obviously a win for the Palestinians. It's a win for the Left that has been calling for withdrawing for years. The win for the Right that has been missing is the guarantee that the settlement blocs and the security fence around them will allow most of the settlers and most of the settlements to remain forever."
ANOTHER KEY to convergence for Schneller is strengthening Jewish education in Israel and the world to inspire the mutual respect necessary to prevent internal conflicts from destroying the state. He said all Israelis are united in the belief that Israel has a right to its land and that this consensus is an important message to send to the world.
"I'm more concerned about the inner conflict within Israeli society than the Arab-Israeli conflict," Schneller said. "I am not afraid of Arabs. The Temple was destroyed because of senseless hatred among Jews, not because of external enemies. If there is no mutual respect, [convergence] can't be done. But just as the world stopped talking about the Palestinian right of return, when all Israelis speak the same way, the world listens."
Schneller turned down former prime minister Ariel Sharon's offer to head the disengagement authority. This is despite a long history between the two men, that included the building of many settlements together when Schneller headed the settlers' council. Schneller told Sharon he couldn't implement the disengagement plan because the needs of the settlers weren't being taken into account properly, and not enough of a consensus had been built around the plan.
Since then, Schneller believes the nation has undergone an important change. He believes soul-searching has taken place among settlers who have realized that they failed to attract the support of the public.
"The nation is ready now because disengagement had a scarring effect," Schneller said. "My friends on the Right know the nation didn't follow us. We were together when we got to the Red Sea, but we were alone when we got into the water. We lost the people."
Schneller says Olmert has learned from the mistakes of disengagement, so that, for instance, enough homes will be ready in the settlement blocs for communities to relocate to before they are forced to move.
After disengagement, Schneller drew up a 10-stage withdrawal plan that he presented to Sharon on January 4, hours ahead of the stroke that ended his premiership. The plan includes specific numbers, settlements and a map that Schneller has since shown to Olmert but will not yet reveal to the public.
Olmert will likely take the map with him next month when he goes to Washington to begin the process of selling convergence to the world. The international community's flexibility is Schneller's final key to convergence and the one about which he seems most skeptical.
Schneller says Olmert will have to persuade the Americans and Europeans to stop using terms they have been using for the past 30 years - terms such as "illegal settlements" - and adopt what he calls "creative openness" to look at a permanent solution that will allow the land to be divided "by demography and not by geography."
"If the [world leaders] allow their intellectual stagnation to continue, there will be more and more peace plans and more and more terror, nothing will come out of convergence and Israeli democracy will be threatened," Schneller said. "The world still sees the Israeli-Arab conflict as a technical issue over borders when it is so much more. I am not sure the world is ready, but the nation is ready."
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