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Olmert & Israel: The Change

Olmert had been a hawk too and was even to the right of Menachem Begin. He voted against the peace treaty with Egypt in 1978 and against the Oslo agreement in 1993. Later, as mayor of Jerusalem he ignored the warnings of his own experts and dug open an ancient Hasmonean tunnel alongside the Haram al-Sharif, the great platform standing on the former Jewish Temple Mount where the Muslim mosques now stand, recklessly provoking a riot that left seventy-nine Muslims dead and over a hundred wounded. Sometime later, in the late 1990s, Olmert is said to have had a revelation, and to have become the first Israeli prime minister to announce publicly “I was wrong.” But an understandable credibility problem remains.

Olmert came into the premiership unexpectedly after Sharon’s sudden stroke and, to make things worse, he was at the time being investigated by the police in four different corruption cases. One investigation has since been dropped for lack of sufficient evidence. On a recent morning, however, more than a hundred policemen descended on his former law offices, among other places, in search of more evidence for the remaining three cases. A final report by an inquiry commission into his much-criticized handling of the Lebanon war is also still pending. It is due in January. Bernard Avishai, the author of a forthcoming book on Israel, argues that maintaining the performance of the dynamic Israeli economy might have been a key concern influencing Olmert’s change of mind: you can’t be another Singapore while fighting a Serbian-style civil war.3

I had a long background talk with Olmert recently and came away impressed by his pragmatism and by the absence of the pious solemnity that was characteristic of several of his predecessors. Dire demographic forecasts that the Palestinians would soon be the majority in Greater Israel seem to have had a part in his change of heart. The “demographic danger” is now talked about in Israel as if it was an impending plague. Olmert does not want Israel to become a binational state. The two sides must separate. He suspects that Israel may have lost previous opportunities to make peace, in Oslo and at Camp David. What may still have been possible then is no longer possible now. Still, he feels that another opportunity may now be at hand, and he does not want to miss it too. He firmly believes in the two-state solution. Indeed, he now sounds almost like former president Jimmy Carter in his recent book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (for which Carter was accused of anti-Semitism).

On his way back from the Annapolis conference Olmert told reporters that failure to successfully negotiate a two-state solution would spell nothing less than the end of the State of Israel. Unless a Palestinian state is established, he said, “Israel is finished.” It would become an apartheid state, like South Africa. American Jews, he added, would be the first to turn away from it, disappointed and in disgust. Some of the things Olmert says nowadays may be “spin,” but this last statement certainly sounds different.

Olmert does not know yet how many settlers must be moved out of the West Bank—perhaps over 150,000. He is in the middle of negotiations with the Palestinians about this and does not want to go into details. He has hopes that Abbas understands that Israel can’t take in any more than a token number of Arab refugees. When there is a Palestinian state to which they can return, there will be a different situation. He seems to think, perhaps a little too smugly, that even in Jerusalem, where Israeli and Palestinian quarters are so intertwined and there is the problem of the so-called “sacred basin”—the part of Jerusalem’s old city including both Jewish and Muslim holy sites—solutions can be found. Many of the problems may be technical, and technical problems can be resolved.

The emotional problems are much more difficult. Olmert wants to do all he can to strengthen Abbas but also wants to make it clear that there is nothing sacred about the 1967 borders. The Palestinians themselves want more territory; for example, they demand a land corridor between Gaza and the West Bank, and they’ll need one. Olmert gives the impression that he has the votes for all this in the Knesset. When you ask Israelis if they are ready to divide Jerusalem, most of them will say no; but when you ask them if they want to separate from the Palestinians, most of them will say yes. Olmert is said to be confident that the Knesset will not approve the recent proposed law making every change in the status of Jerusalem subject to the approval of 80 out of the 120 deputies.

2.

The three main impediments to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement are the settlements, control over Jerusalem, and the Palestinian demand for the right of return of the Palestinian refugees and/or compensation for their loss. Of these, however, the problem of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem seems to be the most difficult to resolve. Taken together, these settlements are a huge, intentionally created obstacle that affects hundreds of thousands of lives. And for what? In the best case, the settlements extend the Israeli border to the east by a few miles, a distance devoid of serious strategic meaning; in the worst case, they could perpetuate the hundred-year war between the two peoples indefinitely. Yet there are now so many settlers—over 250,000 in the West Bank—that it may turn out to be impossible to dismantle communities created with the precise aim of precluding a repartitioning of the country. Too many lives, too many political careers and real estate interests—i.e., too many people and political factions within Israel—may depend on it. On the occasion of President Bush’s recent visit to Israel, the lead editorial in Haaretz blamed Bush for being an “accomplice after the fact” in the illegal, constantly expanding Israeli settlement project in the West Bank.

The Palestinians continue to insist, as they did at Camp David in 2000, on repartitioning along the 1967 lines. This would leave Israel with 78 percent of the entire disputed area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean and the Palestinians with 22 percent. Having already lost 78 percent of Palestine in 1948, the Palestinians argue, they can’t be expected to cede more. Are land swaps a solution? They were discussed at the aborted Camp David talks in 2000; they were also raised in Clinton’s proposals of December that year—which the Israelis accepted and Arafat rejected—and at the Taba meeting in January 2001. If several large Israeli settlements on the borders are to remain in Israeli hands, the Palestinians will demand that they be compensated with Israeli territory adjacent to Gaza, among other places.

The settlement project grew to its present dimensions in the years after the great victory of 1967. After three wars, terror, superinflation, two intifadas, suicide bombers, and other troubles, a defiant and seemingly unreal cast of mind has taken hold among many Israelis. I have observed this mindset in my own family. It is well described by Sylvain Cypel, a French observer and editor of Le Monde, who spent many years in Israel, in his insightful book Walled: Israeli Society at an Impasse. He writes, “The occupation automatically reinforced the most ethnicist tendencies.”

The original French title of the book, Les Emmurés—those walled in—better expresses the peculiar mixture of joie de vivre, arrogance, provincialism, aggressiveness, fear of another Holocaust, and claustrophobia that has struck foreign observers and also some Israelis for years. All Israeli governments after 1967—whether on the right or the left—supported the settlement project more or less enthusiastically. When the project began, the world was in an age of decolonization, and the Algerian war had occurred less than a decade before. How Israeli leaders thought they could get away with a permanent occupation without provoking another war remains a mystery. Ben-Gurion, then out of office, advocated a quick withdrawal.

Perhaps Israeli leaders recalled that in 1948, Israel had ended up with almost twice the area allocated it in the UN partition resolution; so this time, too, they may have believed, Israel would be allowed to keep what it had won in 1967. They overlooked the fact that 1948 was a unique moment of grace, barely three years after the Holocaust. At a time when Europeans were still holding on to their colonies, Israel had been attacked by the armies of four adjacent countries, and it was to be a haven for a million survivors.

None of this was the case two decades later, after a war Israelis named after the Six Days of Creation. Ignoring international protests, all Israeli governments, left and right, gave lavish support for the settlement project, openly or by subterfuge. The financing was often indirect—filtered through concealed channels—and went under many names. Settlement funds were hidden in health, transportation, or education budgets. The full cost so far is not known, but must amount to billions of dollars. The Israeli writers Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, in their excellent, well-documented book Lords of the Land, write:

Deception, shame, concealment, denial, and repression have characterized the state’s behavior with respect to the flow of funds to the settlements. It can be said that this has been an act of duplicity in which all of the Israeli governments since 1967 have been partner. This massive self-deception still awaits the research that will reveal its full magnitude.

The settlement fever first spread among young men and women who believed they were following in the footsteps of the early Zionist pioneers, the fabled “beggars with dreams” who between 1892 and 1948 had settled on land owned by Jews. This cannot be said of the settlers after 1967 who settled on requisitioned land in violation of international law that prohibits the movement of settlers into occupied country. According to Peace Now, 46 percent of all land in the West Bank is now directly controlled by the settlers’ local councils, whose powers extend beyond their communities. Many of the early settlers were young Orthodox Israelis, true believers, urged on by their rabbis who saw in the settlement project the “Beginning of Salvation.”

The project soon appealed to non-ideological, secular Israelis in search of cheaper housing. To protect them against the anger of Palestinians, whose lands they often took over, they were given arms. The settlements were surrounded by moats and electronic fences; but the houses were up to 50 percent cheaper than in Israel proper. The Israeli government built an enormous new network of roads and tunnels allowing settlers to commute easily to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv without, in most cases, encountering—or even setting eyes on—a single Palestinian except in the far distance.

There are now, in effect, two road networks in the West Bank, roads for Palestinians and roads strictly reserved for Israelis and carefully guarded. East of Jerusalem I suddenly happened upon a new four-lane road divided by a wall in the middle. One side is for Palestinians, and creates a road link but not the promised geographical contiguity between Ramallah and Bethlehem. The other side is reserved for Israelis traveling in the same directions.

The settlements are mostly on land requisitioned by the Israeli government for “public purposes,” though it is difficult to see how the arbitrary designation of “public” lands in the West Bank could have applied to land held by anyone other than Palestinians. Neither the Turks, the British, nor the Jordanians ever compiled a proper register of land ownership in the West Bank. Land usually belonged—and still belongs—to clans or to individuals by contract or tradition. There is no available public record showing that Palestinians whose land has been requisitioned have received compensation from the Israeli government. According to a recent study by Peace Now, 40 percent of the settlements were built on private Palestinian land.

The settlement project that Zertal and Eldar describe so clearly has gone on now for nearly forty years. It continues to this day, they write, “as though it were an involuntary, unconsidered movement of a body that has lost its mind.” Water resources in the West Bank are controlled by the settlers, whose lawns and swimming pools are often within view of Palestinian villages where water is so scarce it has to be brought in by truck.

Lords of the Land describes the political history of the settlement project in detail, showing how after the Six-Day War, the project was launched and sustained by, among others, Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, Golda Meir, and Menahem Begin. As for Ariel Sharon, they describe him as

the powerhouse behind the expansion of the settlements and their spread throughout the West Bank in order to thwart evacuation and return of the land to the Palestinians.

They examine the origins and the methods of Palestinian terror and the cult of death that arose among some of the Orthodox settlers who were quick to make powerful political symbols of those who were killed. In the 1970s, before the peace treaty with Egypt, when there were still Israeli settlements in the Sinai peninsula, a settler from Hebron visited one and asked, “Where is your cemetery?” He was told there was none. “In this case you are lost!” he cried. Zertal and Eldar’s book tellingly describes the special relationship and complicity that has developed between settlers and the higher echelons of the army and the secret service. Not a few senior Israeli officers are themselves settlers.

Before the Annapolis conference, Olmert pledged to freeze new settlement construction. But this promise has been rendered meaningless since, as Haaretz has reported, the Israeli government continues to expand a dozen existing settlements in the West Bank. Another settlement project, “the biggest ever since 1967,” at Atarot, between Jerusalem and Ramallah, was announced by the Israeli housing ministry in December. New construction is also taking place at Har Choma, also known as Jebel Abu Neim, a new suburb of greater Jerusalem designed for 15,000 housing units that is located ten minutes from the city but is just outside the 1967 demarcation line; an additional three hundred units are now being added. When I visited the sales office in December, I was told that five-room penthouses will be available for a third of what they cost half a mile down the road in Jerusalem proper.

Elsewhere in the West Bank, Zertal and Eldar describe how the new Jewish neighborhoods are “invading the heart of Hebron,” and encircling the main Palestinian towns of Nablus and Ramallah, the present seat of the Palestinian government,

creating a human and urban mix so volatile that any attempt to draw a border through it in order to separate the two peoples will entail bitter struggles and agony.

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the settlers’ community grew by 5.45 percent during the first half of 2007.

When Zertal and Eldar’s book was published in Israel in 2005, it received excellent reviews in the Israeli press. “[Israel’s] politicians, all of them, come out looking very small in this giant of a book,” wrote Haaretz (where Eldar is a staff member). “One cannot, should not, put down this encyclopedic book till its very end, in spite of the rage…. [It’s] a must-read book.” Yedioth Ahronot praised it for exposing the settlers’ rhetorical techniques, their portrayal of any concession or withdrawal as a disaster of Holocaust proportions. Lords of the Land gives the first full account of the curious combination of blind ambition, political ignorance, demagoguery, absent-mindedness, distorted religiosity, and gross real estate speculation that went into the vast, hugely expensive building project that now has become the main impediment to peace. They describe the settlers’ policy of fighting for every last house on every last illegal outpost in the West Bank as though it were holy land.

At a certain moment, the settlers indeed became, like the title of Zertal and Eldar’s book, lords of the land, well connected, politically powerful, represented in the cabinet, in the Knesset, in the government bureaucracy, and, above all, in the army. There are now second- and third-generation settlers. Many of them, raised amid the constant violence and conflict of the West Bank, act in wild and aggressive ways. Some of them are frequently involved in nasty skirmishes with Palestinians. Armed with weapons supplied by the army for self-defense, they harass Palestinian shepherds with impunity, uproot olive groves, poison fields and plants in the hope of forcing Palestinians to abandon nearby lands. They often enter Palestinian villages shooting wildly in the air.

Known as noar hagvaot—youths of the hilltops—they “occupy” hills at a distance from their settlements to create “outposts” of new “Jewish presence.” They begin by putting up a tent and planting flags. Soon a few trailers roll up—no one knows exactly from where—and a number of mobile huts arrive by truck.

The police rarely if ever intervene. Local policemen in the settlements are often settlers themselves. Young families from the settlements move into the trailers and huts with their numerous children who, of course, cannot be abandoned. Water pipes are laid by the national water company and the electric company connects the “outpost” to the national grid. Before long, an asphalt access road to the outpost has been constructed, and since the settlers could be attacked, a few soldiers are permanently posted on site for their protection. No exact information is available on who pays for these services. Very likely it’s the taxpayer. But this, more or less, is how 105 allegedly “unauthorized” settlements or outposts came into being in recent years, with an estimated population of two thousand.

The mindlessness of the settlement project was nowhere more evident than in the narrow, grossly over-populated Gaza Strip. The Palestinians call it the biggest prison on earth. It is surrounded on three sides by a high fence and on the fourth by the seacoast, which is patrolled day and night by the Israeli navy. Balloons and unmanned surveillance aircraft hover above and photograph everything. The population density is one of the highest on earth. Here, until the Israeli evacuation in 2005, some 1,500 Israeli settlers lived inside their gated communities, behind electronic fences, with green lawns, swimming pools, clinics, and other amenities. They were surrounded by one and a half million Palestinians, most of them, in wretched shanty towns, refugees from Israel and their descendants.

The two worlds rarely met. Moving from one to the other was like moving from Southern California to Bangladesh. By 2005, shortly before Sharon’s stroke, this part of the settlement project was becoming too costly. Apart from the human toll, one or two armored infantry battalions and regular sorties by tanks and even the air force were required to protect a dozen or so settlements spread throughout the Gaza Strip.

When Sharon decided to evacuate them, the settlers were offered ample compensation, in some cases up to half a million dollars. Thousands of soldiers and police were needed to oversee their forced evacuation. For reasons never adequately explained by the Israeli government, every house in these settlements was dynamited after the evacuation—synagogues especially were not allowed to fall intact into alien hands. Practically every amenity was blown up—roads, wells, water tanks, electricity poles—leaving behind mountains of ruins everywhere; only the communal greenhouses in which settlers cultivated flowers for export were left intact, and they were soon destroyed by Palestinians. When Sharon collapsed into a deep coma a few months later, some settlers claimed he suffered divine punishment for having dared to challenge them and their God.

In evacuating Gaza one of Sharon’s motives may also have been to advance his last great project: an attempt to impose Israel’s final borders on the West Bank unilaterally, through what was called hitkansut, sometimes translated as “convergence.” The projected final border would follow, more or less, the line of the new barrier wall. It would include within Israel proper most of the larger West Bank settlements but require the repatriation of perhaps ten thousand settlers. It was supposed to prevent the much-feared binational state by concentrating as many Jews as possible inside the redrawn borders. It would, in addition, provide a continued Israeli presence in the Jordan valley. Dov Weisglas, Sharon’s chief of staff, said at the time that this project would postpone the creation of a Palestinian state indefinitely; it would, he said, be put in formaldehyde. Sharon did not live to carry out his plan. Olmert at first endorsed it but then changed course and resolved to try to find a negotiated solution agreed upon by both sides. Many of those who have talked to him, as I have, believe he means it. Whether, at this late stage, he is strong enough to make good on his words is another question. The same may be said for the recent rhetoric of George Bush promising a peace treaty before he leaves office.

—January 16, 2008

  1. 3

    Bernard Avishai, The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace at Last (to be published by Harcourt in April).

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