Ehud Olmert
Ehud Olmert; drawing by David Levine

The settlement project, as Gorenberg shows, was promoted by successive Israeli governments of the left and the right, overriding objections voiced at various times by a minority of cabinet ministers and a handful of dissenters outside the government in the academy and the press. The project was first intended to provide Israel with secure borders, as called for in Security Council Resolution 242, passed after the 1967 war. But soon there was no stopping it. The result, as Gorenberg puts it, was nothing less than “an artificially created Bosnia.” Its first promoters were the secularists Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan, and Yigael Allon, of whom it was said that after God the Father had been declared dead, they had married the Motherland. The first settlements were modestly called “outposts.” Raymond Aron, then visiting Israel, asked Prime Minister Levi Eshkol if he wasn’t worried about a rebellion by the Arabs as had happened in Algeria. Gorenberg cites Eshkol’s answer: “No. This isn’t Algeria. We can strangle terror in the occupied territories.”

After Eshkol, other prime ministers including Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin promoted the settlement project; but no one was as committed and ruthlessly effective at it as the secular Ariel Sharon—successively minister of housing, infrastructure (such as roads), defense, and finally prime minister. Though Sharon once claimed that he kept Alistair Horne’s book on Algeria, A Savage War of Peace, on his night table, he must have tragically misunderstood it. That book could not tell him what to do, but it could have told him what not to do. Sharon was called the “great bulldozer” who spread and expanded settlements far and wide, unmindful of their human and political consequences. It is ironic that he was felled by a stroke at the very moment when, succumbing to waves of terror, he tried very late—perhaps too late—to undo, at least partially, what he had wrought in his younger days.

Meanwhile, the terror continues. Some seventy suicide bombers were intercepted so far this year, according to the Israeli army, though one managed to get through and blew himself up in a crowded restaurant in Tel Aviv. He will not be the last. Hell is truth seen too late, as Hobbes said. Sharon was a superb tactician but a terrible strategist. He started a disastrous war in Lebanon which he hoped would eliminate the PLO there just as it had been eliminated in Jordan. I remember first meeting him soon after the 1967 war at a meeting with Haaretz editors: he was still an army general at the time, greatly admired for his victory in a war ominously named after the Six Days of Creation. He tried to convince the editors that Israel must annex all the conquered territories—Sinai peninsula and Gaza Strip, West Bank and Golan Heights. If the Palestinians wanted a state, he said, they could overthrow King Hussein. Jordan should be the Palestinian state; hundreds of thousands of Palestinians already lived there anyway. He convinced few of those present. Forty years old at the time, he was still trim and ruddy with a shock of blond hair. An elderly editorial writer, a man of German origin who had seen the Weimar Republic sink, shook his head and muttered behind me: “Ein Kriegsgott!“—a Teutonic war-god.


The recent election campaign was strangely uneventful, even dull, with little drama and no television debates. Voters knew that Olmert was not Sharon; otherwise they knew little more about him. In a country where as a rule some 80 percent vote, abstention reached an all-time high, almost 40 percent; the abstainers were thought to have mostly been young people fed up with the vacuity and all too frequent corruption of politicians in recent years and by the glaring defects of Israel’s proportional electoral system. Not a few youngsters, according to the exit polls, gave their votes, perhaps as a joke, to the octogenarians of a new, maverick “senior citizen” party led by the spymaster who had handled Jonathan Pollard. It won seven seats in the Knesset and the former spymaster became a cabinet minister. All parties, except that of the “senior citizens,” were disappointed by the results. In one way or another, all were defeated. Olmert’s Kadima, the new “centrist” party that Sharon founded after leaving Likud, also won fewer votes than it had hoped, only twenty-nine seats instead of the forty-one predicted for Sharon before his stroke. Olmert was forced to turn to religious and other coalition partners who have their own special concerns and do not necessarily share his aims.

Ehud Olmert was until recently a relatively minor figure. Six months ago, few would have regarded him as Sharon’s likely successor. If Sharon had suffered a stroke a few weeks earlier, the governing Likud party would not have been split in two and the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu would be prime minister. Netanyahu’s political future now seems dubious. His election slogan, “Olmert will partition Jerusalem: Netanyahu will keep it whole,” backfired. His Likud party lost two thirds of its voters, most of them apparently to Kadima. “Jerusalem the Golden,” the so-called “heart of the Jewish people” and “rock of our existence,” has lost some of its sparkle. There now seems to be much more support even for the repartition of Jerusalem than was assumed in the past.


Olmert has had a variable, hardly inspiring career in Israeli politics. From a family that had supported the right-wing Irgun terrorists in the 1930s and 1940s, he was, in the months following the 1967 war, a fiercely partisan hawk. He was a member of several right-wing splinter groups and is said to have coined one of their slogans: “Liberated Land/Remains Forever in our Hand,” a rhyme as clumsy in Hebrew as it is in English. In 1973 he was the youngest man ever elected to the Knesset. As mayor of Jerusalem in the late 1990s he became a national figure but provoked a disaster by recklessly ordering the opening of an ancient Herodian tunnel close to the Muslim holy places on the ancient Temple Mount. This caused a predictable three-day battle between Muslim protesters and the police, leaving seventy-nine Palestinians dead and hundreds wounded. On the second day the army had to be called in. Fourteen Israeli soldiers also died. The Palestinians suspected, as they frequently do, that the Jews were about to destroy the mosques and rebuild the Jewish Temple where it had stood almost two thousand years ago.

It was the worst massacre of its kind in East Jerusalem since its occupation by Israel in the 1967 war. Olmert’s wife, Aliza, an artist known for her support of the leftist Peace Now, recently told an interviewer that the incident had caused the most serious crisis in their thirty-year marriage. Their children share their mother’s political views. One son refused service in the Israeli army. Before the recent elections, she said, she had never voted for her husband. Now she had done so, because, she said, Olmert had undergone “a deep change.” She was only sorry it had not happened thirty years earlier.

Olmert’s new cabinet took office in early May. Israel has always been a small country with large government cabinets. The new cabinet may become the largest in Israel’s history, as large as China’s, a commentator complained. Predictably, it has no Israeli-Palestinian members; more surprising, it has no ministers from the Russian émigré party that now claims to represent approximately one million Israelis. The two strong men in the new cabinet are Olmert and Labor’s Amir Peretz, the new defense minister. A militant trade-unionist, Peretz is a newcomer to national politics. He and Olmert come from opposite poles, politically and socially. Peretz is the son of Moroccan immigrants who grew up in a grim new town on the edge of the Gaza Strip; Olmert is the son of one of Israel’s established and well-to-do families, a prominent lawyer, and a multimillionaire. Still, as Daniel Ben-Simon recently wrote in Haaretz, for all their differences—blue collar vs. white collar, dove vs. hawk, periphery vs. center—Olmert and Peretz may turn out to be a compatible pair. Even though Peretz’s Labor won only nineteen seats, many see in their partnership something hopeful; it’s not yet clear why, perhaps because otherwise there seems little basis for hope.

Peretz took over the dying Labor Party from the perennial candidate Shimon Peres, now eighty-two, an opportunist who never won a national election in his life and, on losing the party leadership to Peretz, jumped over to Kadima to be rewarded with a purely nominal cabinet job. At the swearing-in, the often-concealed character of Israeli party politics came to light when it was officially announced that Peres has, in his lawyer’s safe, a signed agreement with Olmert whose contents remain secret. One can hope it has to do with the need to make peace and not with Peres’s future power in the new government.

Peretz is the first Labor leader in many years who is not a former general, the first who has been a dove throughout his political life, the first who did not run on a “security first” platform as did all his predecessors, from Ben-Gurion to Rabin, Barak, and Sharon. Instead, Peretz promised voters to cut the bloated defense budget. Rather than spend money on settlements, Peretz said, he would spend it to fight poverty, raise the minimum wage, and increase old-age pensions that had been savagely cut by the previous Likud government.

Peretz did not hide his distaste for the dozen or so retired generals in the upper echelons of the Labor Party and took only one of them with him into the new cabinet. Peretz has made clear his view that in past years the Israeli military establishment has been overly aggressive in its attitudes. It opposed, at least initially, most peace initiatives, including Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and the Oslo agreement.


Olmert’s first weeks in full power were in some ways encouraging. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has for years been a matter of mutual vengeance, of ceaseless “payback” and settling scores. The prevailing sentiment was, “We can’t keep silent or do nothing. If we don’t retaliate they’ll feel free to do it again.” Olmert, at least during the first few weeks, stopped the process of reflexively administering vengeance. He resisted the wild talk of “punishing” the new Hamas government in Gaza for the continued firing of ineffective, homemade, primitive Kassam rockets from Gaza in the direction of Israel. They land in open fields and cause little if any damage. At least during the first few weeks in office, perhaps under the influence of a new dovish defense minister, he refrained from firing back, but soon reverted to the old practice and authorized the targeted assassination of two Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip. But he resisted demands to punish Iran for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats to wipe Israel off the map. He still hopes that Egypt and Jordan do the work of repression for him and enjoys the considerably improved relations with the Europeans.

In this respect, nothing better could have happened to Olmert than the victory of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections. In one blow, it improved Israel’s standing abroad. Olmert is content to let the United States, the UN, and the Europeans punish Hamas for its continued refusal to denounce violence, disarm terrorists, and recognize not only Israel but all past Palestinian agreements with Israel as well. Speaking on Israeli television early in April, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt asked Israel to be patient with Hamas: “Give them time. There was a time when Egypt too wished to throw you into the sea…. And where are you now? In the sea?” But then Mubarak too imposed new restrictions on Palestinians traveling from Gaza to Egypt, and his foreign minister never found time to meet with the new Palestinian foreign minister.

Jordan and Saudi Arabia also refuse to receive the Hamas foreign minister. Even Arab banks have succumbed to US and Israeli pressure not to transmit funds to the Palestinians. For his part, Olmert at first refused to transfer to the Palestinians customs and other fees for goods imported by the Palestinians from abroad, withheld by Israel. Only on May 11, when the Palestinians’ lack of funds caused food shortages and a rising humanitarian crisis in Gaza and elsewhere, did Olmert relent and turn over some of the withheld funds to the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, Olmert’s government agreed with the decision of the Quartet—the US, the UN, the EU, and Russia—to give further humanitarian support to the Palestinian Authority. Still, Olmert continues to ignore Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who keeps inviting Israel to renew peace talks. Olmert says Abbas by now is not an effective partner for peace. He may be right. Gaza and the West Bank seem on the verge of civil war between Hamas and other factions. In mid-May, Palestinian sources claimed that Hamas members were plotting to kill Abbas.

Olmert’s immediate plan is to “disengage” from the Palestinians—if need be unilaterally—by withdrawing from parts of the occupied territories, to still-unspecified lines but not, as the Palestinians still insist, to the pre-1967 demarcation lines. Olmert promises to try to obtain the consent of the settlers and the agreement of the Palestinians to a new border marked by the wall being built on the West Bank, but if that consent is not forthcoming, as seems most likely, he would seek at least the agreement of friendly governments in Europe as well as the US. This idea was originally Sharon’s, although some say it was formulated under Olmert’s influence.

“Withdrawal” is still a dirty word in Israel. Olmert carefully avoids it. He prefers the sanitized terms “disengagement,” “convergence,” or, more often lately, hitkansut, a Hebrew word that defies translation, implying a closing of ranks within the warm bosom of the family. In the recent campaign, Olmert won at least as many votes for promising hitkansut as Netanyahu lost for opposing it. Peretz speaks of a “break with the past.”

At present, there are three obvious obstacles to Olmert’s plan. The first is parliamentary. Lacking a clear Kadima majority, he hesitates to rely solely on the few Arab and leftist members of the Knesset who would, in any case, give him only a very narrow margin; he still hopes for a considerable majority to push his “convergence” through. For this he needs religious and other coalition partners that do not support the scheme, or do so only partially. The second hitch is international. Olmert plans to evacuate within two or three years some 70,000 settlers from the more remote or isolated settlements, leaving the rest—more than 400,000 settlers—where they are. This will not be easy, especially if the economic sanctions on the Palestinians continue to lead to new waves of terror. One of Olmert’s closest aides is on the record as saying that the Palestinians must be put on a “diet:…make them hungry but don’t make them die of hunger.” And yet making them hungry and broke, I heard one Israeli expert on Arabs say, will not make them nicer, only more lean and more mean. The same aide said that the “convergence” plan will put the proposed Palestinian state “in formaldehyde.” The Palestinians, he said, will get their state only when they become Finns.

According to Olmert’s plan, the evacuated settlers from the more remote settlements would be resettled elsewhere in the occupied West Bank, somewhere behind the five-meter-high wall with its fortified rows of barbed wire, searchlights, death zones, electronic alerts, digital cameras, etc. Some might live near the large existing settlements which, as George W. Bush, in a much-publicized letter to Sharon, has already said, it would be unrealistic to evacuate.

The problem here is that for this new border to gain legitimacy, i.e., permanence, it must be confirmed by the other side. Unilateral steps create neither legitimacy nor security. This was shown a few years ago after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon. The withdrawal was successful because Israel had withdrawn to the internationally recognized border, and the Israel–Lebanon border is now as quiet as it had not been for years.

The government has recently invited contractors to submit bids for the construction, on accelerated schedule, of new homes for the evacuees in their new locations elsewhere on the West Bank, where they will be protected by the new wall. When completed, the wall will run 759 kilometers. It will then be three times longer than the Israeli–Jordanian border before 1967, enclosing the Jewish state inside one enormous bunker.

The third obstacle is that the new wall will cut off some 200,000 Palestinians in Greater Jerusalem from their relatives, their natural hinterland, their universities, public institutions, businesses, workshops, and the property they own on the West Bank. Tens of thousands of other Palestinians on either side of the wall will be cut off from their orange and olive groves and their fields.


In his inaugural speech, Olmert continued to insist that Israel has inalienable historical rights for all the land west of the Jordan River; and yet he made it clear that repartitioning the country is inevitable because of what has often been called the “demographic time bomb.” By 2030, perhaps earlier, there would be a Palestinian majority west of the Jordan. Without partition, Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state would be in danger. The currently “spread-out settlements,” he said in his inaugural, “threaten the existence of the state.”

Asked why the possibility of a Palestinian majority had not occurred to him before—“has not this been obvious for years?”—he said that he had expected more Jewish immigrants to come to Israel, especially from the former Soviet Union; but only a million came. He wants Israel to finally become, as he put it, a normal country, where it will be “fun” to live without the sword of a certain Palestinian majority by 2030 hanging overhead. There will be no Israelis left on the other side of the great wall, he promised. The wall is planned to enclose Greater Jerusalem and most of the main settlement blocks in the West Bank. It will extend deep into the West Bank as far as Maale Adumim, a settlement of 32,000 inhabitants halfway down to Jericho, and in the west to the large city of Ariel, twenty kilometers inside the West Bank. This will not only divide Palestinian Jerusalem residents from their families and businesses outside the city but will, in effect, cut the West Bank into at least two enclaves. Olmert also wants to retain freedom of action in the remaining West Bank against terrorists and maintain a “military presence” in the Jordan Valley. Israel will therefore establish a security zone along the river that will further cut into the West Bank, taking up a considerable amount of territory. The Jordanian government, forever suspicious of Palestinians, reportedly favors such a presence.

There are now close to half a million Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, including Jerusalem, lured there either by intense faith in religious nationalism, tax incentives, cheaper housing, or all three. Most commute daily to work in Israel proper. Approximately one half live in the former East Jerusalem and its immediate outskirts, annexed in 1967 by an act of parliament. Greater Jerusalem now covers a huge area and is a mixed, ostensibly “united” city today of Israelis and Palestinians. The latter continue to boycott elections to the “united” municipality. The new Israeli suburbs built after the 1967 war in Arab neighborhoods within and beyond the old demarcation line are neat, well-kept, and occasionally even luxurious. Because they were heavily subsidized and built on expropriated private and public land, housing prices there have traditionally been as much as a third cheaper than in the former Israeli-held West Jerusalem. By contrast, Palestinians were at first encouraged to emigrate and later prevented from buying apartments in the new Israeli suburbs. The municipal government still badly neglects the remaining purely Palestinian neighborhoods. Many are sadly run down. Behind the Mount of Olives and in the Valley of Hinom, below the Old City walls, the Palestinian quarters look more like Cairo slums. Mountains of garbage lie in the street, there are potholes everywhere, no sidewalks, no proper streetlights, and no parks, as there are on the Jewish side. An open sewer runs though muddy streets.

The new Israeli suburbs on the Palestinian side of the old demarcation line now reach almost to the outskirts of Ramallah in the north and Bethlehem in the south. Some people still speak as though it were still possible to redivide Greater Jerusalem neatly along ethnic lines. They must have looked at old maps. Anyone driving today through the new Israeli districts, which are widely dispersed north and east, notices immediately that many of them seem inextricably linked with those of the Palestinians. Large pockets of Israeli suburbs are surrounded by larger Palestinian residential neighborhoods, and vice versa. It is difficult to see how these interlocked areas can be disentangled and redivided.

The former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti was right when he warned twenty years ago that the settlement project would soon be irreversible (“it’s ten minutes before twelve,” he warned). Many Israeli doves mocked him at the time for his gloomy views. Abba Eban wrote a brochure to refute Benvenisti’s argument and it was published by the Center for Peace in the Middle East. But Benvenisti was right. Israel had been warned early on that the settlements violated international law by, among others, the United States, and early in the fall of 1967, even by the legal adviser of the Israeli foreign ministry, who later became a judge on the International Court in The Hague. The warnings were ignored.


I spent a couple of days recently visiting settlements on the West Bank with Danny Rubinstein, the veteran Haaretz commentator on West Bank affairs. Most settlers live in the 190 “authorized” settlements built on land expropriated from private Arab owners or on so-called “public” (i.e., unowned) land, though it is difficult to distinguish private from public land in a territory where no official record of land ownership was ever made. The British mandatory government and the Jordanian government had never gotten around to clarifying titles and property. Land was traditionally held by clans according to informal understandings. Ownership was based on old deeds and on tradition. After 1967, the Israeli military government freely interpreted the legal situation in its own interest. Large areas seized for alleged “security” reasons ended up as Israeli civilian settlements. Conquerors frequently construe the law in their own interest, as was the case in America, where, according to Stuart Banner, a professor at UCLA, the Indians lost much of their land largely because of a continuing divergence between law and practice.2

The “authorized” new Israeli settlements sparkle with nice-looking villas and cottages and lavish community centers paid for by the profits of the national lottery. There are shopping malls surrounded by planted cypresses and frequently sprinkled green lawns and private swimming pools within sight of Palestinian villages where water is still brought in twice a week by tankers or trucks. It soon becomes clear to a visitor that the inhabitants of most of the settlements remain convinced that they and their descendants will stay there forever. In the more remote settlements now scheduled for evacuation, and in the so-called “unauthorized”, i.e., wild settlements, the talk is bitter. I often heard the slogan “We were thrown out by the Nazis but they won’t be able to kick us out from here.”

Much of the West Bank remains a war zone. The Israeli military presence is considerable, with many round, armored pillboxes, or bulletproof towers, overlooking the main Palestinian villages; the towers have slots for observation or shooting, with tall antennas and large Israeli flags hanging on high masts. “Hardened” SUVs are parked outside, ready for instant intervention. Inland from the big wall itself, I saw several new lower walls, built by the army, that now run parallel to local roads and can be used to block easy escape routes for potential terrorist cars.

Everywhere between Jerusalem and Hebron and between Jerusalem and Nablus, one encounters astonishing displays of outsized Israeli flags, glaring manifestations of sovereignty in the heart of a hostile population; I never saw that many flags in previous years. You see them at every road-block, around every settlement, on every possible lamppost, and on high barbed wire fences. Almost everywhere there are completely separate road networks: one network for Israelis only, and another for Palestinians, with tunnels and overpasses enabling Israeli commuters to reach Jerusalem or Tel Aviv without meeting—or often seeing—a single Palestinian. The road network reserved for Israelis is brand new. The settler roads are smooth, broad, and well lit at night. The Palestinian roads are often old and full of potholes, and there are checkpoints every twenty or thirty kilometers. At peak times Palestinian cars, often including ambulances, can wait for hours at a checkpoint. The newest checkpoints are ingeniously designed so that there is no direct contact between the Palestinians and the Israelis who examine the Palestinians’ papers through slots in steel doors, using scanners linked to “wanted” lists.

In addition to the 190 “authorized” settlements, there are more than a hundred “unauthorized” ones, though for most of them the Israeli state has supplied housing and asphalt access roads as well as electricity and water lines. Just how this was done remains obscure. A cabal of politicians, bureaucrats, real estate speculators, and sympathetic military governors, many of them settlers themselves who lived nearby, must have lent a helping hand. The state also, as a matter of course, assigns squads of four or five soldiers to protect each settlement, whether authorized or not, and surrounds all of them with three rings of high barbed wire, powerful searchlights, and electronic alert systems. In addition, everything in the radius of three or four hundred meters of a settlement is declared a “special security zone” and Palestinians are warned not to enter them.

Then there are the smaller settlements, so-called outposts. They are frequently populated by violent, heavily armed young men who often harass the neighboring Palestinian farmers to make them move away. In many cases farmers have been beaten and their huts burned; at one place I visited in the hills south of Hebron, a Palestinian farmer told me that the settlers had thrown rat poison into the sheds where he keeps his sheep and goats; they bulldozed a field where he had been growing vegetables and fodder. Children walking to school in the nearby village were harassed daily. When I was there, volunteers from Swedish and Chicago human rights groups confirmed the farmer’s story. They now come every morning to accompany the children to school.

Several such cases were reported in 2005 by B’tzelem, the Israeli human rights group. The police were informed but no charges were made. An official Ministry of Justice inquiry strongly criticized the aggressive behavior of these settlers and called for dismantling unauthorized settlements and outposts; but nothing has been done.

Convincing 70,000 remote or “unauthorized” settlers to relocate will be difficult but many think it will be possible. It might, I heard, cost about ten times as much as the evacuation of seven thousand settlers from Gaza, or between $15 and $20 billion. There will be stormy demonstrations, but if evacuation takes place it will have been made possible politically, thanks largely to the former prime minister, now comatose in a Jerusalem hospital. Shortly before he suffered a stroke, his notion of hitkansut had become part of a consensus wider than at any time since 1967. Even the settlement of Beth-Arye, on the hills of Samaria overlooking the narrow Israeli coastal plain, will be emptied, I was told. For years it was known as “Sharon’s Terrace” because he used to take prominent foreigners there to show them why Israel can never give up the West Bank. George W. Bush too, while still governor of Texas, was taken there by Sharon in his helicopter. Looking west through Sharon’s binoculars toward the sea and southwest through the haze to the skyscrapers in Tel Aviv, hearing Sharon’s argument that the settlement could not be removed, Bush allegedly told Sharon: “I can understand that. It would be sheer madness.”

Thanks in part to Sharon, relatively little is now left of the old, secular hard-line right so prominent in Menachem Begin’s days and again in 2001 after the outbreak of the second intifada, when the voters gave Sharon’s Likud the largest majority in its history. The old Likud from which Sharon split away a few weeks before his stroke was decimated in the recent election and has become a marginal party of only eleven deputies. The country seems to have become centrist.

The secular supporters of a Greater Israel, once so vocal, are now hardly heard from. The demonstrators who protested the evacuation of Gaza a few months ago were nearly all settlers or religious fanatics. The ideological momentum for the Greater Israel, as David Landau recently observed in Haaretz, now comes almost exclusively from religious fundamentalists in the settlements: men obsessed with God’s promise to Abraham in the Bronze Age or with the messianic promise—or perhaps with both. For them the boundaries between the prophetic vision and the realpolitik of the modern Jewish state remain as fuzzy as they have always been since 1967. But they won only nine seats.

Even the secular, quasi-fascist Israel Is Our Home party, supported mainly by xenophobic Russian immigrants and led by Netanyahu’s former crony Victor Liebermann, does not oppose Olmert’s hitkansut; but since even within Israel proper, the rate of reproduction of Palestinian-Israeli citizens is already almost double that of Jewish Israelis, Liebermann demands that in exchange for evacuating West Bank settlers an equal number of Palestinian-Israeli citizens be expelled as well.

Will the Palestinians of Hamas and Fatah be content with what Olmert may offer them? They feel very strongly that even before the 1967 war they had already lost to the Israelis 78 percent of historic Palestine. Getting the remaining 22 percent back—i.e., practically all of the West Bank and including the former “East Jerusalem”—is the absolute minimum they say they can accept. Then there is the question of timing, which has always been of vital importance in this conflict. Several opportunities were missed in the past. At first the Israelis were ready to make peace but the Palestinians were not. Then the Palestinians were ready but the Israelis delayed. In 1967, the main Palestinian politicians in the West Bank were ready to make peace if Israel agreed to the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state. This was before the rise of Arafat and the PLO. Israel would not hear of it. General Dayan believed Israel could remain in the West Bank forever so long as its regime was humane and economically in the interest of the natives.

As Gorenberg’s book makes clear, the strange naiveté of Dayan led him to believe that new fertilizers and improved water supply systems would induce Palestinians to consent to Israeli rule.3 In its 1978 peace treaty with Egypt, Israel, under Menahem Begin, recognized the “legitimate rights” of the Palestinians and agreed to “full autonomy” for the Palestinians but Begin dragged out the negotiations with the Egyptians on this issue until they—who did not care much about Palestinians anyway—tired of it and suspended the talks.

The truth is that Begin was convinced that in the peace treaty with Egypt he had traded the Sinai peninsula for a free hand in the West Bank. Two years after the signing of the peace treaty, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then the Egyptian deputy foreign minister, told me in an interview: “Israel is cheating! It is not granting autonomy to the Palestinians.” I said: “Why do you say cheating? Begin never made a secret of how he felt about the West Bank.” Boutros-Ghali said: “Yes, but [then Defense Minister Ezer] Weizman assured us that all Begin wants in the West Bank was a mere fig leaf.” “Funny,” I said, “that’s exactly what Weizman told Begin about your attitude to this issue. Throw him a fig leaf, he always told Begin.” Boutros-Ghali laughed.

Simultaneously, Begin launched the largest settlement drive in the West Bank and Gaza to date: Sharon was in charge of this. A few years later he authorized Sharon to invade Lebanon and lay siege to Arafat’s headquarters in Beirut. It would be, he told President Reagan, like catching Hitler in his bunker. Timing, or the lack of it, remained crucial. The Oslo agreement of 1993 might not have collapsed if Arafat had done more to prevent suicide attacks and Israel hadn’t accelerated the settlement program, or if Sharon had not provoked Palestinian violence through his disastrous visit to the Temple Mount in 2000. Before the recent electoral victory of Hamas, a deal with Mahmoud Abbas—an avowed opponent of all Palestinian violence—was perhaps still conceivable. Sharon insisted that Abbas was “no partner.”

Some observers now point to the fact that Hamas declared a “calm” (tayhdia) in 2005, which it still largely observes; but its Palestinian competitors—Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad—go on bombing. After the victory of Hamas, the Palestinians are much less likely to consent to a deal that Abbas himself had already rejected with an adversary that Hamas leaders do not recognize and who refuses to talk with them. Unfortunately, it took almost forty years to begin withdrawing from where Israel should not have been in the first place. In the meantime, a purely local clash became part of a menacing “clash of civilizations.”

The US has recently been urging Olmert to go slow on his plan to act unilaterally, at least until it becomes clear that the continuing international pressure on Hamas is not working. The US has different priorities from those of Israel. It would certainly welcome any Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory, but its first concern at the moment is to prevent the spread of chaos in the West Bank and Gaza. With terror bound to continue, Israel’s situation remains precarious, and that of the walled-in Palestinians becomes darker than ever.

—May 24, 2006

This Issue

June 22, 2006