The Gaza pullout a year ago cracked the Likud and forced Sharon to create his new Kadima party. And then Sharon had his stroke, and Olmert ran for prime minister in his stead. Sharon's appeal was his military record, with its victories and excesses. Olmert, lacking a myth, used a startling campaign strategy: He presented a clear platform on Israel's most important and divisive issue, the future of the occupied territories. It worked. The March election gave a clear majority to parties favoring withdrawal from much of the West Bank, and a plurality to Olmert.
The abduction of soldiers from inside Israel and the missiles now hitting the country, however, show the risks of leaving without a negotiated agreement to put someone clearly in charge beyond the border. Olmert's air offensive in Lebanon and Gaza appears designed to show that Israel can defend itself without sending troops back to occupy the land it has left. And by arresting Palestinian Authority officials in Gaza who belong to Hamas, Olmert also hopes to end Hamas control of the PA government so that withdrawal will seem safer. But polls show plummeting support. Once-supportive pundits are criticizing the idea of "throwing the keys" over the border fence on the way out to whoever picks them up. Chaos in the West Bank, or a hostile regime there, risks missiles falling on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
To salvage his planned withdrawal, then, Olmert will need to reconsider unilateralism. From his first late-life revelation he learned that Israel could not rule over the Palestinians. Yet he still expected to impose his will on them. It won't work. To leave the West Bank, Israel needs a stable regime there, committed to an end of hostilities and able to enforce that policy. The only way Palestinian moderates can gain that power is by showing that through diplomacy they can deliver what their public wants: independence. They could agree to minor fixes in the pre-1967 borders but not to Israel annexation of swaths of land, as Olmert has sought till now.
Unless he wants to lose power, or return to rightist positions he has already recognized as bankrupt, Olmert will need another epiphany: Unilateralism won't free Israel of the West Bank. For that, he needs to sit down with the Palestinians.