In colloquial Israeli Hebrew, when someone discovers something that everybody else already knows, we say: “Good morning, Elijahu!”
Why Elijahu? I don’t know. Now one could say: “Good morning, Ehud!”
That’s what I said to myself when I read the sensational interview that Ehud Olmert gave this week, on the eve of the Jewish New Year, to the newspaper “Yediot Aharonot”.
AT THE end of his political career, after resigning from the prime ministership, while waiting for Tzipi Livni to set up a new government, he said some astounding things – not astounding in themselves, but certainly when they come from his mouth.
For those who missed it, here is what he said:
* “We must reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the essence of which is that we shall actually withdraw from almost all the territories, if not from all the territories. We shall keep in our hands a percentage of these territories, but we shall be compelled to give the Palestinians a similar percentage, because without that there will be no peace.”
* “… including Jerusalem. With special solutions, that I can visualize, for the Temple Mount and the historical holy places … Anyone who wants to keep all the territory of the city will have to put 270 thousand Arabs behind fences within sovereign Israel. That won’t work.”
* “I was the first who wanted to impose Israeli sovereignty on all the city. I admit … I was not ready to look into all the depths of reality.”
* “Concerning Syria, what we need first of all is a decision. I wonder if there is one single serious person in Israel who believes it is possible to make peace with Syria without giving up the Golan Heights in the end.”
* “The aim is to try and fix for the first time a precise border between us and the Palestinians, a border that all the world [will recognize].”
* “Let’s assume that in the next year or two a regional war will break out and we shall have a military confrontation with Syria. I have no doubt that we shall smite them hip and thigh [an allusion to Judges 15:8] … [But] what will happen when we win? … Why go to war with the Syrians in order to achieve what we can get anyway without paying such a high price?”
* “What was the greatness of Menachem Begin? [He] sent Dayan to meet with Tohami [Sadat’s emissary] in Morocco, before he even met Sadat … and Dayan told Tohami, on behalf of Begin, that we were prepared to withdraw from all of Sinai.”
* “Arik Sharon, Bibi Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Rabin, his memory be blessed …each one of them took a step that led us in the right direction, but at some point in time, at some crossroads, when a decision was needed, the decision did not come.”
* “A few days ago I sat in a discussion with the key people in the decision-making process. At the end [I told them]: listening to you, I understand why we have not made peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians during the last 40 years.”
* ” We can perhaps take a historic step in our relations with the Palestinians, and a historic step in our relations with the Syrians. In both cases the decision we must make is the decision we have refused to face with open eyes for 40 years.”
* ” When you sit on this chair you must ask yourself: where do you direct the effort? To make peace or just to be stronger and stronger and stronger in order to win the war … Our power is great enough to face any danger. Now we must try and see how to use this infrastructure of power in order to make peace and not to win wars.”
* “Iran is a very great power … The assumption that America and Russia and China and Britain and Germany do not know how to handle the Iranians, and we Israelis know and we shall do so, is an example of the loss of all sense of proportion.”
* “I read the statements of our ex-generals and I say: how can it be that they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing?”
My first reaction, as I said, was: Good morning, Ehud.
I am reminded of my late friend, the poet who went by the name of Yebi. Some 32 years ago, after dozens of Arab Israeli citizens were killed demonstrating against the expropriation of their lands, he came to me in utter turmoil and exclaimed: we must do something. So we decided to lay wreaths on the graves of the killed. There were three of us: Yebi, I and the painter Dan Kedar, who died last week. The gesture aroused a storm of hatred against us, the like of which I have not experienced before or since.
Since then, whenever someone in Israel said something in favor of peace, Yebi would burst out: “Where was he when we laid the wreaths?”
That is a natural question, but really quite irrelevant. Olmert, who fought all his life against our views, is apparently adopting them now. That is the main thing. Not “Good morning, Ehud” but “Welcome, Ehud”.
True, we said this 40 years ago. But we were not an incumbent Prime Minister.
True, too, that these things were said and spelled out in detail by many good people, like those who wrote the Gush Shalom Draft Peace Treaty, the Nusseibeh-Ayalon document or the Geneva initiative. But none of them was an incumbent Prime Minister.
And that is the main thing.
IT SHOULD not be forgotten: In the period in which these ideas were crystallizing in Olmert’s mind, he was allowing the settlements to expand, especially in East Jerusalem.
That gives rise to an unavoidable question: Does he really mean what he says? Isn’t he cheating, as is his wont? Isn’t this some sort of manipulation, as usual?
This time I tend to believe him. One can say: the words sound truthful. Not only the words themselves are important, but also the music. The whole thing sounds like the political testament of a person who is resigned to the end of his political career. It has a philosophical ring – the confession of a person who has spent two and a half years in the highest decision-making office in the land, has absorbed the lessons and drawn conclusions.
One can ask: Why do such people reach their conclusions only on finishing their term of office, when they can no longer do much about the wise things they are proposing? Why did Bill Clinton come to formulate his proposals for Israeli-Palestinian peace during his last days in office, after wasting eight years on irresponsible games in this arena? And why, for that matter, did Lyndon Johnson admit that the Vietnam War has been a terrible mistake right from the beginning only after he himself had brought about the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese?
The superficial answer lies in the character of political life. A Prime Minister rushes from problem to problem, from crisis to crisis. He is exposed to temptations and pressures from the outside and stress from the inside, coalition squabbling and inner-party intrigues. He has neither the time nor the detachment to draw conclusions.
The two and a half years of Olmert’s term were full of crises, from the Second Lebanon War, for which he was responsible, to the corruption investigations which dogged him throughout. Only now has he got the time, and perhaps the philosophical composure, to draw conclusions.
That is the importance of this interview: the speaker is a person who stood for two and a half years at the center of national and international decision making, a person who was exposed to the pressures and the calculations, who had personal contact with the leaders of the world and of the Palestinians. A normal person, not brilliant, not a profound thinker by any means, a man of political practice, who “saw things from there that cannot be seen from here”.
He has delivered a kind of State of the Nation report to the public, a summary of the reality of Israel after 60 years of the state and 120 years of the Zionist enterprise.
ONE CAN point out the huge gaps in this summary. There is no criticism of Zionist policy over five generations – but that is something that one cannot really expect from him. There is no empathy with the feelings, the aspirations and the traumas of the Palestinian people. There is no mention of the refugee problem (it is known that he is ready to take back just a few thousand in the framework of “family reunion”). There is no admission of guilt for the disastrous enlargement of the settlements. And the list is long.
The primitive basis of his world view has not changed. That is made clear by the following amazing statement: “Every grain of the area from the Jordan to the sea that we will give up will burn our hearts … When we dig in these areas, what do we find? Speeches by Arafat’s grandfather, or Arafat’s great great great grandfather? We find there the historical memories of the people of Israel!”
That is utter nonsense. It is totally unsupported by historical and archeological research. The man is just repeating things he picked up in his early youth, he is simply expressing his gut feelings. Anyone sticking to this ideology will find it hard to dismantle settlements and make peace.
All the same, what is in this testament?
It is an unequivocal and final divorce from “All of Eretz Israel” from a person who grew up in a home over which hovered the Irgun emblem: the map of Eretz Israel on both sides of the Jordan. For him, the Irgun slogan “Only Thus” has turned into “Anything But Thus”.
It gives unequivocal support to the partition of the country. This time, his adherence to the principle of “Two States for Two Peoples” appears much more genuine, not lip service or sleight of hand. His demand for “fixing the final borders of the State of Israel” represents a revolution in Zionist thought.
Olmert has already said in the past that the State of Israel is “finished” if it does not agree to partition, because of the “demographic danger”. This time he does not invoke that demon. Now he speaks as an Israeli who is thinking about the future of Israel as a progressive, constructive, peaceful state.
All this is put forward not as a vision for the remote future, but as a plan for the present. He demands that a decision be taken now. It almost sounds like: Let me continue for another few months, and I shall do it. The unstated assumption is that the Palestinians are ready for this historic turning point.
And he has fixed an Israeli position from which there can be no going back in any future negotiations.
This is the testament of the Prime Minister, and it is obviously intended for the next Prime Minister.
We don’t know whether Tzipi Livni is ready to implement such a plan, or what she thinks about this testament. True, she has lately voiced rather similar ideas, but she is now entering the cauldron of the Prime Minister’s office. One cannot know what she will do.
I wish her one thing above all: that at the end of her days as Prime Minister she will not have to sit down and give an interview, in which she, too, will apologize for missing the historic opportunity for making peace.
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.