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Olmert & Israel: The Change


Israel under Ehud Olmert is not what it was under Ariel Sharon, at least in tone. Sharon was a soldier who spent much of his life fighting the Arabs. Olmert is a suave corporate lawyer, a deal maker, a political operator. Sharon supported the “Greater Israel” movement. Olmert’s idea of Israel is not the replay of a biblical vision but a secular modern state with a booming economy, integrated into global commerce and closely linked to Europe. This does not mesh well with what God and Abraham discussed in the Bronze Age. Sharon spoke of a long and difficult struggle. Olmert says Israelis are “tired of war, tired of being victors.”1 When he speaks, as he often does, of two states, Palestine and Israel, the hard-liners are full of rage.

Olmert may be the most pragmatic Israeli leader since 1967. One hopes he does not come too late. According to Haaretz, he told an American delegation recently that in “Israel there are perhaps 400,000 people who maintain the state, leaders in the economy, in science and in culture. I want to make sure they have hope, that they’ll stay here.” His own two sons, it is well known, live in New York. He is the first Israeli premier who has expressed some empathy for the Palestinian tragedy. In his speech in Annapolis in late November, he said, “We are not indifferent to [the Palestinians’] suffering.” It is true that the next morning eight Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army but it is impossible to overlook what seems, at least, the beginning of a change. The leftist Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy was uncharacteristically optimistic, wondering whether perhaps an Israeli de Klerk was emerging here.

Sharon claimed there was no “partner” for peace on the other side. Olmert says there is one now—Mahmoud Abbas. Against Abbas’s demand to restore the 1967 borders, Olmert apparently wants to keep much of the territory west of the new wall as well as to maintain a so-far-undefined military presence in the Jordan Valley. This would leave the Palestinians with less than what they insist on. Sharon was a leading architect of the huge Israeli settlement project in the occupied territories where almost half a million settlers now live in 226 authorized and “unauthorized” settlements and in East Jerusalem. That this project was a mistake, at least in its dimensions, is by now almost a truism. Jerusalem in its entirety used to be Israel’s sacred center that could not be touched. But last year, the fortieth anniversary of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem on June 7, 1967, a date that has always been celebrated with patriotic pomp, passed almost unnoticed. It is now claimed by some Israeli strategists that the dispute over Jerusalem might be the easiest to resolve—Israeli sectors of the city would go to Israel, Palestinian sectors to Palestine. In a city where the Israeli and Palestinian quarters are so intertwined, it is hard to conceive of the Escher-like web of winding roads, running in all directions, that such a division would require, with myriad bridges, tunnels, overpasses, and control points between the two. But it’s possible.

In Israel in the weeks following the Annapolis conference, I heard some futuristic talk of Jerusalem as an open city, the capital of both Israel and Palestine even though there have never been two national capitals in the same city anywhere in the world. There is even talk that Israel may eventually become a binational state anyway. Meron Benvenisti, one of the very few who years ago foresaw the way things have gone, points out in Son of the Cypresses: Memories, Reflections, and Regrets from a Political Life, his new, very courageous book, that within a decade, even within the old 1967 borders, Arab Israelis may already make up as much as 25 percent of the population. He writes:

The attempt to fight the “demographic threat” by dragging more and more new immigrants from every remote corner on earth has been carried to absurd extremes…. The time has come to declare that the Zionist revolution is over.

Nahum Goldman, the former head of the World Jewish Congress, used to say that the political standoff between the Israelis and the Palestinians was postponing the inevitable for as long as possible. The outcome described by Benvenisti is not in sight but it’s probably a good thing that Arafat and Sharon have been replaced by Olmert and Abbas—two less charismatic, less flamboyant, more pragmatic men. It’s a pity that both remain, relatively speaking, weak and partly discredited. To strengthen Abbas, the Israeli government needs to freeze the construction of new settlements in the West Bank and make a genuine effort to reduce the daily harassment and humiliation of Palestinians in what has become an increasingly brutal occupation. To strengthen Olmert, the Palestinian Authority needs to make genuine progress on security.

Neither of these is being taken. After the botched war in Lebanon, Olmert’s popularity ratings dropped drastically. They later rose somewhat but he continues to face questions about his legitimacy. In a protest meeting in 2006 on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv attended by hundreds of thousands, the writer David Grossman, who had just lost a son in the Lebanon war, alluded to a famous line by T.S. Eliot, charging that Israel was now governed by “hollow” men.2 A short time afterward, at a ceremony where Grossman was honored with a literary prize, he refused to shake the prime minister’s hand.

Olmert will ultimately be judged not by his conciliatory, nowadays even carefully leftist rhetoric but by his acts. He continues to delay taking the actions that are necessary—lifting at least some of the countless restrictions on Palestinians, stopping the expansion of settlements, dismantling the 105 “unauthorized” outposts. A possible agreement with Abbas may not survive a confidence vote in the Knesset. Olmert’s coalition is a brittle alliance with Labor, led by Ehud Barak, who has become a hawk; a religious party obedient to the dictates of an unpredictable holy man; and a party of eight irascible elder citizens.

Olmert’s own party, Kadima, is full of old Sharonists and split between doves and hawks. Olmert may hope that he might be saved by the small leftist party Meretz and by the Arab members of parliament; but it will be a near miracle if he is able to pull it off.

As for Abbas, he lost a lot of his political strength when Hamas took over Gaza. He presides over some 60 percent of the Palestinians now; the rest are in Gaza. When Abbas looks out of his office windows in Ramallah, he sees, in all four directions, growing Israeli settlements close by on the surrounding hills, and he seems unable so far to do something about it. His administration is in disarray. His control of the West Bank is far from secure and two of his leading advisers are no longer in the West Bank. His security chief Mohammad Dahlan is said to have retired to Cairo; and former foreign minister Nabil Shaath has been appointed special envoy to Egypt, in an effort to persuade the Egyptian government not to deal with Hamas. Israeli troops continue to roam freely through the West Bank. Hardly a week goes by without the Israelis arresting Hamas activists in the West Bank, to the satisfaction of Abbas and his men, or so the Israelis claim.

Complete security had been Sharon’s great aim, and his illusion. For years, he felt he was achieving it well enough through war and the large-scale settlement project in Gaza and the West Bank. His master plan aimed at creating as many settlements as possible and widening Israel’s narrow waist in the coastal plain; he wanted to surround the main Palestinian cities with settlements and cut up the West Bank into several enclaves.

He largely achieved these aims, but where did it get him? The barrier wall, 723 kilometers long, much of it eight meters high, takes up a vast amount of land in the West Bank, more than all the settlements put together. In many places the wall area is fifty meters wide, including moats, sand strips for detecting footprints, and patrol roads. Now nearing completion, it is one of the biggest construction projects ever carried out by any Israeli government. It may have been modeled after the Morris wall built during the civil war in Algeria, named after the commander in chief of French forces there. Is such a wall going to be more effective here? Perhaps. In Jerusalem alone, more than five hundred Israelis were killed by Palestinian militants before the wall was built around it; since then, hardly any have been killed. But the wall’s construction has also coincided with a general dramatic drop in terror attacks, including in areas not affected by the wall. And the wall cannot prevent the firing of rockets on Jerusalem and other cities, as has been the case in Gaza for many months despite extensive Israeli reprisals.

Winding around Jerusalem on the hills, the wall is visible from nearly everywhere, an atrocious blot on what used to be a remarkable, almost biblical view of terraced hills and stony Arab villages. Since it cuts through Jerusalem’s natural hinterland and several of its Palestinian suburbs in the east, the wall divides many more Palestinians from one another than Palestinians from Israelis. Its construction has been counterproductive in the sense that it has expanded the municipal borders, and the Palestinian population within them is considerably larger than it was. There are now three gates as well as huge terminal areas, built into the wall to control the flow of traffic, that are reminiscent of airports. Traffic into and out of Jerusalem is often blocked. Asked about this daily nightmare on his recent visit, President Bush offended Palestinians by joking that his own caravan of no less than forty-five cars went through smoothly from Jerusalem to Ramallah without encountering any problem.

Elsewhere, the free movement of Palestinians is still curtailed at more than six hundred checkpoints in the West Bank, and Palestinian commuters are often delayed for hours despite Israeli promises at Annapolis that restrictions would be eased. The checkpoints are often manned by rough-mannered Druzes who serve in the Israeli army in return for a privileged status, like the Berbers in Morocco or the Sikhs in India under colonial rule.

Sharon did not believe in negotiations. The Palestinian president Abbas pleaded to coordinate the Israeli evacuation of Gaza with him. Sharon preferred to evacuate Gaza unilaterally. He believed in force. Long ago I heard him say dismissively that force was the only language Arabs understood. If the Palestinians wished to have a state, he said, they must seek to establish it in Jordan, if necessary by toppling the Hashemite dynasty. Israel must remain in the West Bank and the Jordan valley for reasons of military security and “historical right.” So it did for more than forty years. Many, perhaps most, Israelis shared his view. But what did it get them?

  1. 1

    Haaretz, November 10, 2007.

  2. 2

    A translation of Grossman’s speech was published in these pages, “Looking at Ourselves,” The New York Review, January 11, 2007.

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