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Talk of peace negotiations has all but ended in Israel

BINYAMINA, Israel—Drora Vered is tired of fruitless peace talks with the Palestinians; so tired that she supports completion of the contentious separation barrier that slices through parts of the West Bank.

"I want a wall," Vered said as she threw up her hands in her living room. "We're here, you are there and a wall in between us until we meet again."

The 58-year-old tour guide's view is shared by many Israelis, who are expected to endorse a risky strategic shift in Israel's quest for security. Few people who are preparing to vote Tuesday talk about peace. Instead, they talk about giving the next government a green light to set Israel's boundaries without negotiating with the Palestinians.

Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that within four years he wants to shut down the more remote Jewish communities in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank, formally absorb the bigger Jewish settlements around Jerusalem and retain a protective military presence in the occupied valley near Jordan.

The "convergence plan" being pushed by the fledgling Kadima party, now headed by Olmert, is proving to be popular with voters such as Vered. But even some supporters of this unilateral approach concede that ignoring the Palestinians isn't likely to lead to long-term peace, much less near-term stability.

"Unilateralism cannot forge a lasting peace," said Yossi Alpher, a former director of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University who now runs the www.bitterlemons.org political Web site. "It can't forge any peace. Unilateralism creates a better territorial situation looking towards a peace process somewhere down the line."

Critics of the plan say it's likely to backfire. Instead of buying Israel a few years of stability, they warn, the idea of effectively seizing more West Bank land that's supposed to be part of a Palestinian state, walling Israel behind the separation barrier and retaining a military presence near Jordan will only inflame frustrations.

"I absolutely don't think there is a unilateral solution that works," said Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "It works fine as a tactical argument, but it isn't going to solve even the immediate problems. I don't think that worsening economic and political conditions in the Palestinian areas are going to be helpful to the Israelis."

In fact, Telhami said, a second settlement pullout could end up further empowering Hamas, the Islamist militant group that now dominates the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has argued that its suicide-bombing strategy was a main reason that Israel withdrew from the predominantly Palestinian Gaza Strip last summer.

Edward Abington, a former U.S. consul general who's now advising Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said the plan as laid out by Olmert did little more than create more politically palatable Israeli domination.

"What the Israelis are saying is they've given up on any idea of any kind of agreement leading to statehood with the Palestinians," Abington said. "What they have settled on instead is reorganizing the occupation in a way where, by Israeli calculations, they will be more secure and suffer less in the way of casualties. It's not stable."

Unilateralism has quickly become Israel's populist political movement. And, for the first time, Israelis will have a chance to formally endorse the idea.

When Ariel Sharon became prime minister in 2001, he publicly rebuffed talk of abandoning some 250,000 Jews living in disputed West Bank and Gaza Strip settlements amid millions of Palestinians under Israeli military rule.

So many people were shocked in 2004 when Sharon unveiled his plan to raze all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and end Israel's military presence in the coastal region, which is home to 1.3 million Palestinians.

Israel's pullout from Gaza last summer won broad support from the Israeli public, and Sharon was considering a similar plan for the West Bank when his political career was cut short by a debilitating stroke in January.

Olmert, then Sharon's second-in-command, stepped in as acting prime minister and leader of the new breakaway Kadima party, which is expected to win the most parliamentary seats Tuesday.

Olmert has made it clear that he'll form a coalition government only with smaller political parties that support the idea of a partial West Bank pullout.

"I want to make this clear, so that no one is in any doubt: I intend to implement this plan," Olmert told Israeli television this month. "Anyone who does not wish this plan to be implemented will not be in my coalition. I do not intend to compromise on the details of the plan. This is the plan, and there is no other."

The idea of going it alone has gained greater cachet since Hamas won control of the Palestinian Authority through elections in January.

Hamas has ruled out recognizing Israel as a nation, much less negotiating with it. That's allowed Israeli politicians to shun Hamas as a potential partner and has given more credence to the unilateral proposal.

Miri Eisin, a former intelligence officer in the Israel Defense Forces, said that, while risky, unilateralism was the only option Israel had now.

"Anybody will tell you that you can't define a border unilaterally; that's an oxymoron," Eisin said. "But the alternative is to negotiate, and that's not feasible with Hamas."

Eisin admits that peace isn't on the horizon, but she sees no other alternative after years of suicide bombings and peace talks that produced few stable results.

"It's a different mood," she said. "Israelis don't talk about peace. We talk about nonviolence. We talk about separation. The last five and a half years have pretty dramatically changed the Israeli society's psyche and the political realpolitik."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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