Unspoken truths

2009-01-07 00:00

Hours after tendering his official resignation as Israel’s prime minister on September 21, Ehud Olmert gave a remarkable interview to the country’s most popular newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, in which he said that he wanted to speak for the first time about truths that his country was refusing to recognise.

Israel had a brief window of opportunity, he said, in which to take a historic step in its relations with the Palestinians and the

Syrians before entering what threatened to become an extremely dangerous situation.

“In both instances,” Olmert said, “the decision we have to make is the decision we’ve spent 40 years refusing to look at with our eyes open. We must take these decisions, and yet we are not prepared to say to ourselves, ‘yes, this is what we must do.’

“We must reach an agreement with the Palestinians, meaning a withdrawal from nearly all, if not all, of the [occupied] territories. Some percentage of the territories would remain in our hands, but we must give the Palestinians the same percentage [of territory] — without this, there will be no peace.”

“Including Jerusalem?” asked the two startled reporters conducting the interview.

“Including Jerusalem,” Olmert replied emphatically, “with, I imagine, special arrangements made for the Temple Mount and the holy or historical sites.”

Without that there would never be security in Jerusalem. Maintaining control over the entire city would also mean having to absorb 270 000 Arabs into the borders of Israel, which was unacceptable. For 35 years, added Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, he had passionately advocated maintaining Israeli control over the entire city, which he said embodied all the deepest yearning and collective memories of the Israeli people, and even now he found the decision difficult to take.

“I’m not trying to retroactively justify what I’ve done for the past 35 years,” he said. “For a significant part of those years I wasn’t ready to contemplate the depth of this reality.”

But now the decision had to be taken.

Likewise, Olmert insisted that Israel needed to take a tough decision to return the Golan Heights to Syria.

“I’d like to know,” he asked rhetorically, “if there’s a serious person in the state of Israel who believes that we can make peace with the Syrians without, in the end, giving up the Golan Heights?”

Why wait for war, with all its losses and destruction, in order to do what might be achieved without paying such a heavy price? he asked rhetorically.

“A prime minister must ask himself where to best direct his efforts. Are his efforts best directed towards making peace or are they directed constantly towards making the country stronger and stronger in order to win a war?

“What I’m saying here has never been said by a leader of Israel. But the time has come to say these things. The time has come to put them on the table.”

There is something deeply disturbing, even pathetic, reading those words again now by a prime minister who thought that he had left office but whom political circumstances have compelled to stay on in a caretaker capacity and who now, a mere three months later, has led his country into the most violent and bloody bombardment of the Gaza Strip since the 1967 war — a war that in a few days has killed twice the number of Palestinian children alone than all the Israeli casualties inflicted by Hamas’s homemade Qassam rockets over the past seven years.

To quote Olmert’s words back at him, does he honestly believe that Israel can make peace with the Palestinians without talking to and ultimately doing a deal with Hamas, the organisation that was voted into power by the Palestinians in a free and fair election three years ago and, as every serious Middle East specialist knows, has overwhelming support in Gaza.

After decades of evidence to the contrary, does he really believe he can blast Hamas into submission and then make a deal?

Does he not realise that what he is doing is fuelling more and more Palestinian hatred towards Israel — and that the West’s complicit silence in the face of this hi-tech aerial bombardment of a crowded and walled-in ghetto, a fishbowl of 1,5-million people who cannot escape, is what is fuelling Arab rage and the terrorism that flows from it?

Has he not taken note of repeated statements by Hamas’s leaders, all too few of whom have been reported in the Western media, that they are prepared to declare a long-term truce and negotiate with Israel provided it first withdraws from the Palestinian territories — precisely what Olmert himself says Israel must do?

I don’t believe Olmert is unaware of any of this. I believe he spoke from the heart in that moment when he thought that he was heading out of office and was free to speak the truth as he saw it — to do, as he put it to the two Yedioth Ahronoth reporters, “some soul- searching on behalf of the nation of Israel”.

But then his successor as leader of the Kadima party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, was unable to form a coalition government and Olmert had to stay in a caretaker capacity pending a general election next month.

So he had to re-engage with the imperatives of Israeli politics with an election looming. The truth, it seems, is off the table once again.

Livni has had to do likewise. She immediately issued a statement dissociating herself from Olmert’s statements. Indeed she went further. As Kadima’s candidate to be Israel’s next prime minister she has committed herself to expelling Israel’s one million or so Arab citizens to a Palestinian state if one is established in the long talked-about two-state solution.

“It must be clear to everyone,” she declared in a speech in November, “that the state of Israel is a national homeland for the Jewish people” — adding that the national demands of Israeli Arabs should end the moment a Palestinian state is established.

Three weeks ago, she amplified her position further in a speech, reported by Israeli Army Radio, to students at a Tel Aviv high school.

“Once a Palestinian state is established,” she said, “I can come to the Palestinian citizens, who we call Israeli Arabs, and say to them, ‘You are citizens with equal rights but the national solution for you is elsewhere.’

“The idea is to maintain two states for two peoples. That is my path to a democratic nation.”

Sounds to me like ethnic cleansing. Or at least the equivalent of the apartheid strategy of declaring black South Africans to be statutory foreigners whose real homelands were the Bantustans.

And Livni is the moderate candidate in the upcoming Israeli elections. The hawk is Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party, a former hard-line prime minister who wants no withdrawal at all from the occupied Palestinian territories or from the Golan Heights — and who is leading in the opinion polls.

Livni has narrowed the gap a little with her stance, while the Labour Party leader, Ehud Barak, the defence minister in the coalition government who has led the war on Gaza with volcanic rhetoric, has done even better.

Is this what the Gaza war is really all about?

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