(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Ehud Olmert has the opportunity and the mandate to extricate Israelis and Palestinians from the escalating cycle of bombings and rocket launches, targeted killings and suicide forays, blockades and penetrations that has become the norm in recent months.
He can chart an alternative course that defies the sadly familiar mutual pounding syndrome that is fast unleashing a new round of unspeakable violence and untold human misery. He may, if he acts resolutely now, go beyond the almost mindless rhythm of forceful action and reaction that could yet lead to a third intifada. To do so, he must rid his administration of the architects of Israel's present defense policy and distance himself from their constricted worldview.
The one person most closely associated with Israel's military thinking and actions during the past six years is Shaul Mofaz. First as chief of General Staff and then, almost without any break, as defense minister, he has been directly responsible for shaping those measures that have not only yielded a sustained diplomatic deadlock, but now threaten to perpetuate the conflict indefinitely.
Under Mofaz's questionable leadership, a new conventional wisdom has coalesced - one which maintains that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is truly intractable. At best, according to this thinking, violence can be restricted, the threat perhaps managed. But under no circumstances, the argument continues, is any respite in sight. In light of the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections and the subsequent disarray not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank, the most one can hope for is that a firm and impenetrable line of separation be drawn.
This conceptual framework - designed by Mofaz and the coterie of officers who have surrounded him - has allowed for the elaboration of a dual policy of enhanced military assaults coupled with increased civilian containment. The relentless pursuit of Palestinian militants through extra-judicial assassinations, repeated closures, attacks that continue to claim the lives of innocent civilians (albeit inadvertently) has not stopped the barrage of Kassams or reduced Palestinian resolve to end the occupation.
Nor has the stepped-up construction of the wall in Jerusalem and the ongoing work on the barrier in the West Bank - a precursor to further unilateral steps - necessarily augmented Israel's safety.
Both moves have, however, systematically fueled chaos, increased the scope of the human suffering, and exposed Israel to ongoing international opprobrium. Most tellingly, they may encourage further extremism.
THE ESTABLISHMENT of a new government headed by the most civilian of Israel's elected prime ministers in recent memory offers a chance to consolidate a more promising and ultimately more peaceful policy. It would be totally counterproductive to begin the quest for the demarcation of internationally recognized permanent boundaries - Ehud Olmert's stated objective in his victory speech and the centerpiece of the guidelines of his emerging coalition - with the reappointment of the man most unequivocally linked to the present morass. A fresh start dictates the selection of a new minister of defense.
Shaul Mofaz's studied campaign to safeguard his position is transparently disingenuous. Even those willing to digest his last-minute abandonment of the Likud and his move to Kadima should not be blinded by the suggestion that his experience is indispensable to the stability of the new government.
To the contrary, this record is nothing short of a liability at this juncture. The brazen attitude of Mofaz toward the very tangible plight of the vast majority of Palestinians can only prove to be a veritable handicap when a more humane approach is sorely needed. And, in a period when a concerted effort must be made on the diplomatic front, his inability to see beyond the next military move constitutes a political impediment of the highest order.
The replacement of Mofaz at the helm of the defense establishment, preferably by a civilian with a capacity to grasp the strategic import of immediate tactical measures, is the necessary first step in forging ahead. Such a change in personnel, however, would be meaningful only if accompanied by a conscious attempt to dissociate the new government from the prevailing belief in the overriding power of the military in molding state priorities.
Ehud Olmert has stated his commitment to transforming Israel into a normal society. The widespread realization that there is no military solution to the conflict and that continued occupation undermines Israel's very existence is an important step in this direction. So, too, is the willingness to seek international backing for the pursuit of a negotiated settlement based on the growing understanding that Israeli independence and Palestinian self-determination are two sides of the same coin.
The brief of the incoming government is to find the way to translate the knowledge that the former cannot be sustained unless the latter is assured into a political reality that will guarantee a sustainable and just existence for both peoples.
The prime minister-elect must, therefore, initiate a changing of the guard in order to liberate Israeli policymakers from the militaristic straitjacket that imprisoned his predecessors. If he succeeds in meeting this challenge, the prospects for creating a better future will improve substantially.