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Israelis voting for the future of their borders

By Guy Raz
CNN

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CNN correspondent Guy Raz.

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel's parliamentary election on Tuesday isn't about lower taxes or better social services. It's about the future parameters of the state.

For 38 long years, Israel has occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank that it conquered in a war in 1967. Over that time, nearly 400,000 Israelis have settled inside that territory, as well as in Gaza, which they have now vacated.

Until a little more than a decade ago, the dominant Israeli historical narrative argued that Israel wasn't only justified in retaining the West Bank but obligated to do so in the face of hostile neighbors.

Today, that argument carries little weight with the vast majority of Israelis going into Tuesday's election, which will determine the makeup of the 17th Knesset, or parliament.

The man most responsible for this turn-about was the late Yitzhak Rabin. He crushed long-abided taboos in Israel by recognizing the blatantly obvious: Palestinians made up a nation.

The man most responsible for putting the idea in motion is Ariel Sharon, the ailing prime minister who remains hospitalized in critical condition. His charisma casts a long shadow over this election. His legacy, complex as it is, is a powerful tool in the hands of men and women who want to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a domestic Israeli issue into a foreign policy issue.

The idea, roughly, works this way. If Israel can extricate itself from as much of the occupation as possible, much of the West Bank in essence becomes a foreign entity.

After more than a decade of attempted negotiations and the failure of brittle agreements, many Israelis have come to the view that the process didn't work. The victory of Hamas in January's Palestinian election simply confirmed their deepest suspicions: Compromise is not on the Palestinian agenda.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, like Sharon, does not believe that the Arab world will ever, truly recognize Israel. Whether it's paranoia or an acute reading of Arab popular sentiment, most Israelis agree. And so, while the Israeli obsession with self-preservation may look odd from the outside -- on the inside, it remains the guiding national principle.

Self-preservation used to mean holding on to all the land between Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Today, self-preservation -- at least from the Israeli perspective -- means re-partitioning the land. The vast majority of Israelis have come to view that they cannot hold onto land where 3.5 million Palestinians live.

Olmert's dilemma

It's time to "converge," most of them now say. It's a term that will define the next phase of this conflict.

The previous concept -- in the political lexicon of the Israel-Palestine conflict -- is "disengagement."

Disengagement, derived from Middle French, means simply, "to release or detach oneself." But anyone who follows this tangled conflict can't help but apply a wholly separate meaning to it. "Disengagement" was the term Sharon used to describe his country's withdrawal from Palestinian Gaza last summer.

After the Gaza pullout, Sharon had promised he wouldn't carry out any further, unilateral "disengagements." But Sharon is out of the picture and his successor, Olmert, wants nothing more than to carry out further unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank.

Olmert's in a bind. He wants to continue Sharon's legacy, but he needs a new way to do it. So he's come up with the idea of "convergence."

Over the coming four years, he promises to remove, by force if necessary, as many as 90,000 Israeli settlers from the interior of the Palestinian West Bank, and re-house them -- or "converge" -- in areas closer to the 1949 armistice line that separates Israel from the West Bank.

They'd be relocated within the three large settlement blocs that house the overwhelming majority of Israeli settlers. Those blocs would form the edge of Israel's eastern border, which Olmert promises to set down permanently.

Think about it: On Tuesday, Israelis are essentially voting in a kind of referendum on the future of their borders -- and the stakes couldn't be higher.

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