THE GOOD NEWS about Israel's election campaign is that it has become a clear referendum on whether Israel should unilaterally withdraw from up to 90 percent of the occupied West Bank and evacuate thousands of Jewish settlers -- and that the parties favoring this "disengagement" are leading. For decades the issue of whether to yield or keep occupied territory has been obscured in Israeli politics by debates over how to respond to terrorism, or whether Palestinian partners in the "peace process" can be trusted. The winner of the past two elections, the now-disabled Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was deliberately vague about his plans for the West Bank, saying only that "painful compromises" might be necessary.
Now his successor, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has courageously laid out a specific plan to redraw Israel's borders. In interviews last weekend, he said he would rapidly complete the system of fences and walls Israel is constructing near its boundary with the West Bank and, within four years, retreat behind it, effectively annexing most of Jerusalem and the largest blocs of settlements but dismantling those that lie beyond the fence. Though the plan falls short of the territorial concessions Israel once offered in negotiations with Palestinians, it mandates a giant practical step toward the creation of side-by-side Jewish and Arab states.
Mr. Olmert's principal opponent, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is saying with equal clarity that Israel should not carry out such a unilateral withdrawal. "The question today is who will cede territory and who will hold on to territory," he said recently. That's as black-and-white a choice as an electorate could wish for. And so far, polls are showing that Mr. Olmert's Kadima party will finish first in the March 28 vote by a wide margin, while Mr. Netanyahu's Likud party may win fewer than 10 percent of the seats in parliament.
Israeli elections, however, are notoriously unpredictable: Kadima's support has been slowly but steadily eroding since Mr. Sharon was disabled by a stroke early this year, and recent polls have shown a rising number of undecided voters. So it's not surprising that Mr. Olmert would have ordered yesterday's sensational raid on a Palestinian prison in the West Bank, in which Israeli forces captured six militants accused of murdering a right-wing Israeli minister in 2001. True, Palestinian leaders invited the intervention by suggesting that the ringleader of the group would soon be freed, and U.S. and British monitors withdrew from the prison minutes before the raid, reportedly because of their own objections to security arrangements. But this was an act tailored for Israeli voters, some of whom will be as pleased by the predictable expressions of Palestinian and international outrage as they are by the roundup of bad guys.
The Bush administration is wisely keeping a low profile as it watches these electoral and military adventures. Once a new government is formed, however, President Bush may find that the West Bank offers one of his greatest remaining foreign policy opportunities. If elected, Mr. Olmert will certainly depend on U.S. support for his withdrawal plan, and so the administration will have an important opportunity to press for adjustments that could make possible the eventual creation of a stable Palestinian state. In the meantime, it's not necessary to accept the details of Mr. Olmert's platform, or condone preelection military raids, in order to hope that Israelis will choose the course he has put forward.