Look Who’s Talking

Sometimes something is said about you, and you are not quite sure whether to take it as a compliment or an insult.

Two prominent journalists, whom I respect very much, mentioned me in connection with the Prime Minister. Akiva Eldar of Haaretz asked last month about Ehud Olmert: “How to treat a son of the Fighting Family (a nickname of the Irgun, one of whose leaders was Olmert’s father) who sounds like URI AVNERY?” And this week Gideon Levy wrote in the same newspaper that Olmert “speaks like URI AVNERY, even if 40 years later.”

They refer, I assume, to the public demand I addressed 40 years ago to the then Prime Minister to enable the Palestinians to establish a Palestinian State in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, both of which had just been occupied by Israeli troops.

I was then alone among the 120 Members of the Knesset, and my weekly news magazine, Haolam Hazeh, was alone among the media in publishing the plan.

Now Olmert says that the State of Israel will be lost if a Palestinian state is not set up in the framework of the Two-State Solution.

* * *

SHOULD I feel satisfaction? If the Prime Minister of Israel accepts the things you were saying 40 years (and also 60 years) ago, what could be better?

After all, when you propose a political plan, you want it to be realized. The only person who can implement it in practice is the prime minister. When the prime minister expropriates your plan, you should be happy and hop around, singing: “Told you so!”

In a book published in 1970 by the official publishing house of the PLO in Beirut, the Two-State Solution was called “the Avnery Plan”. The author, Kamil Mansur, condemned it in no uncertain terms. But only three years later, at the end of 1973, Yasser Arafat adopted it. Now it is supported both by the leader of the PLO and the Prime Minister of Israel. Hallelujah.

Of course, Olmert does not make these statements because my friends and I have convinced him. I have known him for 40 years, since his first steps in the public arena, and for most of that time we have been enemies. At the beginning he was the yeoman of Shmuel Tamir, who in 1967 coined the slogan “liberated territory will not be returned”. Later, as mayor of Jerusalem, he built settlements all over the place and deliberately provoked bloody clashes, like the infamous tunnel incident.

But if he now feels the need to support a plan that is the opposite of everything he has advocated all his life, this testifies to the popularity of the idea. Our direct part in this may have been limited, but our indirect contribution was, perhaps, considerable. We have prepared public opinion. And in any case, the historic processes have developed the way we foresaw, and they have pushed the leadership of both sides in this direction.

This proves again that even if on the surface monstrous things are happening, underneath, in the depths of the national consciousness, rational and positive trends are gaining ground. It is a long and painful process, but in the end these ideas will prevail.

* * *

BUT DOUBT is gnawing. Perhaps Olmert’s words are only illusion? Deception? Trickery?

Has Olmert really seen the light, like Saul on the road to Damascus, or is this only a political exercise?

Some people believe that the talk about the “core issues” and the “shelf-agreement before the end of 2008” are nothing but the sophisticated tactics of a shrewd politician who is in trouble. In two weeks time, the Winograd Commission will publish its final report on Lebanon War II, and Olmert may find himself in an impossible position. Demonstrators in the street will demand his dismissal. The Labor Party leader, Ehud Barak, will face the demand to resign, as he has promised, on the day the report is issued, and thus bring down the government.

In such a situation, a politician can do only one of two things: start a war or run towards peace. Since the necessary conditions for a war seem not to be present at the moment, the only option left is a peace process. So Olmert becomes a man of peace, speaks the language of peace and makes peace moves.

Skeptics ask: assuming that this will help Olmert to survive the crisis and remain prime minister with a stable coalition – will he then continue to move towards peace? Will he not use the first available pretext to put an end to it? Isn’t this indicated by his present behavior – not honoring the commitment to remove settlement outposts, intensifying building activity in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, continuing the blockade and the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip and refusing the Hamas offer for a cease-fire?

In brief, one should not fall prey to hope. On the contrary, one should expose the real face of the Prime Minister who is exploiting our plan as a means of deception.

* * *

BUT, EVEN if this analysis looks reasonable, doesn’t it suffer from over-simplification?

The most important political event of last week was the resignation of Avigdor Lieberman from the government. His official reason was that he cannot remain in a government that is conducting negotiations about the “core issues” – borders, refugees, Jerusalem and settlements. This may be only a pretext. Lieberman performs convoluted political calculations that a reasonable person cannot follow. But fact is fact. Olmert’s new admirers, including Meretz leader Yossi Beilin, assert that the resignation proves that Olmert is serious.

Lieberman is gone, but Shas remains – respond the skeptics. Lieberman’s way of thinking may be labyrinthine, but the considerations of Shas are quite plain to see. Shas is now in the situation that every politician dreams about. After Lieberman’s secession, the government coalition has only 67 votes in the 120-member Knesset. If the 11 members of Shas secede, too, then Olmert has no government.

Shas is a rightist-nationalist party, and needs a pretext for staying at the governmental trough. They declare that they will leave the moment the government starts talking with the Palestinians about Jerusalem. But in serious negotiations it will be impossible not to do so. The core issues are not separate – a concession on one issue must be answered with a matching concession on another issue. The continued presence of Shas in the government suggests a secret commitment by Olmert not to touch the core issues at all.

Olmert’s assistants do their best to put the rightists at ease: there is nothing to worry about. All in all, Olmert intends only to reach a “shelf-agreement” within a year. “Shelf-agreement” is a new political term that means a document which summarizes all the principles of a peace agreement. Its actual implementation will then be postponed until both sides fulfill the basic demands: the “liquidation of the terror infrastructure” on one side and the “evacuation of settlement outposts” on the other. “That will never happen,” Olmert’s people tell the rightists with a wink.

Either way – when weighting the possibilities, one must also remember that the declarations of a prime minister have a life of their own, whatever their intention. They cannot be returned to the mouth that uttered them. The words are engraved in the collective memory, they change the national consciousness. When Olmert says that the state of Israel is “lost” if a Palestinian state is not established next to it, this is a meaningful milestone.

* * *

LIKE THE people on “reality” TV, Olmert’s first priority is to survive.

This must be taken into account in trying to guess whether he is serious when he talks our language, or if these are just empty words. Is this a “New Olmert”, has Saul indeed turned into Paul, or is this only the old Olmert in a fashionable new disguise? Is it possible that on top of all the tactical considerations, Olmert really wants to imprint his name on history with a great deed?

In the meantime, the situation in the besieged Gaza Strip gets worse and worse. The number of Palestinians killed every day has doubled. The Chief of Staff boasts about it. The Palestinian organizations, on their part, have doubled the number of Qassam rockets launched at Israel, and this time Hamas, too, is officially assuming responsibility. As usual, each side claims that it is only responding to the acts of the other side.

Among the Palestinians killed was Hussam al-Zahar, the son of the former Foreign Minister of the Hamas government. The Shabak security service claims that the father is now the most extreme Hamas leader. If true, this is significant. 16 years ago, al-Zahar demonstrated together with Israeli peace activists against the expulsion of Islamic figures by Yitzhak Rabin. When the exiles returned, he organized the big assembly in Gaza, in which I was invited to speak (in Hebrew) before hundreds of Sheiks, wearing the two-flag emblem – the flag of Israel and the flag of Palestine.

If such a person has become the most extreme leader, this is undoubtedly the fruit of the occupation. It proves again – if proof is needed – that the oppression, which is supposed to destroy Hamas, achieves the exact opposite: it pushes the Palestinian organization into more and more extreme positions. This week, after al-Zahar lost his second son (the oldest was already killed some time ago) he became the most popular leader in the Arab world. Heads of states hastened to call him and extend condolences.

Are these the actions of an Israeli prime minister who wants to achieve peace because he believes that Israel is lost without it?

* * *

BACK TO the beginning: should I be happy or furious when “Olmert sounds like URI AVNERY?”

I remember the words of Rudyard Kipling: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken / Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools”

Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, but it will take implementation to remove the lingering doubt.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is o a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.




URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.