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'Realignment is unstoppable," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said after meeting French President Jacques Chirac this week. "It will be implemented - I hope with negotiations, but without, it will also be implemented. My belief in this has only been strengthened after my meetings with world leaders."
Olmert did not speak of realignment in his press conference with Chirac, nor did Chirac endorse the plan. But in London earlier this week, Prime Minister Tony Blair seemed to echo Olmert.
"Look, this thing either moves forward by way of agreement, or other ways to move it forward have got to be found," Blair said with Olmert at his side. "What you can't have is a situation where nothing happens. Because actually nothing happening doesn't mean that the situation is one of steady state. It actually means it just continues to deteriorate."
Blair did not say he was about to endorse Israel unilaterally retaining 10 percent of Judea and Samaria and creating a "contiguous Palestinian state" on the remaining 90 percent, as Olmert described his plan (a description, incidentally, that raises acute questions about the future of the Jordan Valley). Still, Blair's endorsement of trying to negotiate and moving ahead if talks fail can reasonably be interpreted as a significant step toward Olmert that could be built upon in the future.
By pursuing international support, Olmert is beginning to fulfill his immediate post-election pledge to obtain a "deep understanding" from the US and Europe regarding his plan. But what of his other declared precondition for realignment: maintaining a consensus among the people of Israel?
According to a recent poll commissioned by Haaretz, 56 percent of Israelis oppose realignment, compared to 37 percent who support the plan. Among voters for Shas, the third largest party in the coalition, 83 percent oppose the proposed unilateral withdrawal.
This level of opposition, while striking, is not surprising. There is strong opposition to the plan from both ends of the political spectrum.
On the Right, besides those who oppose dismantling settlements under any circumstances, there are many who cannot understand why Israel should hand over territory to a terrorist-dominated entity that continues to attack it. On the Left, realignment is seen as torpedoing the chances of a negotiated agreement for the foreseeable future. And in the center, where there is backing for unilateralism in principle, and even for the wrenching step of destroying the homes of thousands of Israelis, greater support likely depends on some kind of formal international endorsement for the borders Israel would be seeking to establish.
To date, Olmert seems to have convinced foreign leaders not to stop Israel from withdrawing from territory that, for some time, they have been urging Israel to leave. He has yet to convince these same leaders to provide him with sufficient support to achieve an Israeli consensus that a traumatic unilateral withdrawal is safe and warranted. The missiles raining down on Sderot, and Hamas's determined refusal to moderate or accept any of the conditions set by Israel and the international community, may reinforce the contention that Israel has no viable partner, but they also reinforce concerns about handing over territory to the PA.
Olmert's description of realignment as "unstoppable" is doubtless a reflection of his own determination to implement what was the centerpiece of his election platform and is now the centerpiece of his government policy. It may also be a response to his overseas meetings - which have seen him pressured to place new emphasis on the need to try once more to progress through negotiation with Palestininan Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but also left him persuaded he has international support to move ahead if such an effort fails. It does not, however, represent the result of a prime ministerial dialogue with his own public, and most especially with those who stand to be most directly affected.
That effort at domestic persuasion has yet to reach fruition and must be concertedly pursued for the sakes of Israel's cohesion. Now that Olmert has been to Washington, London, Paris, Sharm e-Sheik, and Amman, it is time for him to focus more on dialogue at home, including with the representatives of Ariel, Ofra, Beit El and Shilo. He might not find as sympathetic an audience, but these are his citizens, and he is their prime minister, whether either side likes it or not.