A vote for progress by Israeli people

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 March, 2006, 12:00am

Israel stands on the threshold of a fresh turn in its short, troubled history. Despite a weaker-than-expected showing by the Kadima party in Tuesday's election, voters have turned away from the conservative dogma that the territories conquered in 1967 cannot be relinquished for the sake of security. That belief has undermined at every turn efforts to achieve a lasting peace. Its demise removes a formidable obstacle. This could create an opportunity to be grasped in the years ahead by the new leaders of Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The election was seen as a referendum on the future of the occupied territories. The fate of the Israeli settlements there has been in the balance since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his plan for the limited withdrawals from Gaza and the West Bank that were completed last year. The plan split the then-ruling right-wing Likud party. Ordinary Israelis had not had a chance to express a view. Now, many have said it is time to turn most of the land over to the Palestinians.

Kadima, the party founded by Mr Sharon after he led his followers out of Likud, and the Labour Party have both outpolled Likud. They are both committed to pulling out of the West Bank. They convinced Israelis that holding all of the West Bank and ruling over its inhabitants poses a greater danger to the country's security in the long run.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the deputy who succeeded Mr Sharon as Kadima leader after the stroke that has left the prime minister in a coma for months, will have to patch together a broad and complex coalition to achieve a working majority. This will not make it any easier for him to push through his agenda. He has vowed to pull back unilaterally from most of the West Bank over the next four years. Israel will draw a new border behind a security barrier. The remaining Jewish settlements will be confined behind this wall. The dismantlement of the rest will displace 70,000 people.

It is far from a perfect solution. It is a poor substitute for a return to the road map for peace agreed between all sides in 2003, which called for a step-by-step approach to resolving disputes and a negotiated withdrawal. It gives the Palestinians no say, and retains some land - perhaps permanently. But it is better than no solution, after decades of fruitless efforts to do a land-for-peace deal.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian territories' new Hamas government has refused US and European demands that it recognise Israel, reject violence and accept previous agreements based on the two states living side by side. Hamas will not want to be seen to capitulate tamely, but nor will it want to risk being internationally isolated and politically marginalised.

Mr Olmert's main coalition partner Labour favours negotiations. Perhaps, when the disengagement is complete, it can press for negotiations and a final fair settlement of the border.