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…

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