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Politics

Olmert: Dreaming in Technicolour

13 April 2006

Olmert: Dreaming in Technicolour

By Gwynne Dyer

“We have a very tight timetable [for drawing Israel’s final borders], because we seek the support of the US administration and President Bush. It has to be done by November 2008,” said Yoram Turbowicz in an interview with the Yediot Ahronot newspaper on 11 April. Turbowicz, who will be chief of staff to Ehud Olmert when the latter takes over as prime minister of Israel’s new government, was only saying publicly what most members of the Kadima Party think in private, but it’s interesting how foolish it looks when you see it in cold print.

Kadima was created only months ago by former prime minister Ariel Sharon, now in a coma due to a massive stroke, to seize control of the centre of Israeli politics and impose a permanent “peace” settlement on the Palestinians. In Sharon’s vision, Israel would decide which parts of the occupied territories to keep and draw the new borders unilaterally, marking them out with the huge security fences that are currently carving their way through the West Bank — and the Bush administration would ratify the outcome and get the rest of the world to accept it.

Kadima emerged as the biggest party in last month’s election, and Sharon’s successor Olmert, who will lead the new coalition government once the usual deals are struck, imagines that he can then carry out Sharon’s grand plan. After all, he has President Bush’s letter of last year to Sharon that drastically changed US policy, declaring that Israel could not be expected to return to its pre-1967 borders “in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers.” Since the United States is the world’s sole superpower, surely it can make everybody else accept that outcome too. Just get it all done in the next 32 months, as Yoram Turbowicz pointed out, before Mr Bush leaves office at the end of 2008.

One of Turbowicz’s assumptions is dead right: Israel cannot expect to have Washington’s support for expanding its borders in such a dramatic way from any subsequent administration, whether Republican or Democratic.

No previous administration in Washington would have backed such a project either. The Bush administration is an aberration, both in its contempt for international law and in the degree to which it sees American national interests and the desires of the current Israeli government as identical.

So the deadline is real.

But Turbowicz is dead wrong in assuming that US support will be enough to make the change in Israel’s borders legal, permanent, and widely accepted. The world does not work like that, and even if America’s power were as great as Olmert seems to think it is, Washington could not make other countries accept such a gross breach of international law.

The new international law, written into the United Nations Charter, states that territorial changes imposed by force will not be recognised by UN members. Full stop. It’s about taking the profit out of war and thereby reducing the temptation to go to war, and over sixty years it is the one UN rule that has almost never been broken. Indonesia conquered East Timor and held it for a quarter century, for example, but nobody ever recognised East Timor’s annexation as legal and finally Indonesia had to leave.

Israel conquered East Jerusalem (together with the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights) in the Six-Day War of 1967, and immediately proclaimed that a unified Jerusalem (including Arab East Jerusalem) was its new capital forever more. The Israeli Foreign Ministry and all the other government departments moved up from Tel Aviv, and since 1967 Israeli domestic law has treated East Jerusalem as just another part of Israel. But no foreign government recognised the annexation of East Jerusalem as legal, and no foreign embassies moved up from Tel Aviv. Not even the US embassy.

Go on the website of the US embassy in Tel Aviv, and you read that “the information contained in this website applies specifically to American citizens residing in or traveling through the Tel Aviv Consular District (which is comprised of “greenline” Israel [that is, the country within its pre-1967 borders]; residents of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza should visit http://jerusalem.usconsulate.gov/.” The US State Department knows the law, and it applies it.

It is possible (though unlikely) that the Bush administration might yet browbeat the State Department into “recognising” not only Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem but the far greater expansion of Israel’s borders that Olmert now has in mind. (Unlikely, because the Iraq fiasco has already severely eroded the White House’s ability to force its views on the professionals at State.) But it is simply inconceivable that President Bush could persuade other countries to accept such a gross violation of international law.

He cannot deliver; the deadline is meaningless. Olmert’s government can build walls, dig ditches, move settlers around, proclaim that Israel’s eternal borders are now some distance to the east of where they were last week, maybe even get the Bush administration to agree to the change, but none of it will have any legal force. The whole exercise will take up enormous amounts of time, effort and newsprint over the next few years, but it is in the end only a charade.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“One of…real”; and “Go on…applies it”)