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Ehud Olmert

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Ehud Olmert: The Truth, Too Late

2 October 2008

Ehud Olmert: The Truth, Too Late

By Gwynne Dyer

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was well aware that he resembled the generals who join a peace movement as soon as they retire. “I have not come here to justify my actions over the past 35 years,” he said. “For a large portion of that period, I was unwilling to look reality in the eye.”

Olmert, who has resigned but will stay in office until a new government is formed or an election is called, gave a valedictory interview to the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth on 29 September, and said something that no previous Israeli prime minister has said. He declared that if Israel wants peace, it must withdraw from almost all the lands it occupied in 1967. Unfortunately, it’s probably too late.

Not only is it a bit late for Olmert to tell the Israeli public this harsh truth, since he is leaving power now. It’s also too late for Israelis to act on his advice, even if they accepted it, because the situation has changed.

That isn’t Olmert’s own view. What he says is: “We have an opportunity that is limited in time, in which we can perhaps reach a historic deal in our relations with the Palestinians and another historic step in our relations with Syria. In both cases, the decision we must reach is a decision that we have been refusing to accept for the past four decades.”

If Israel wants peace with Syria, he says, it must give back all of the Golan Heights. If it wants peace with the Palestinians, “we must…withdraw from almost all of the (occupied) territories, if not all of them. We will maintain control of a certain percentage of the territories (where the big Jewish settlements are), but we will have to give the Palestinians a commensurate percentage of our land, because without this, there will be no peace.”

Not only that, but Olmert now says that Israel must let go of predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, which the Palestinian Authority wants as the capital of its future state. A “special creative solution” would get around the question of sovereignty over the disputed sacred sites in the Old City.

If Israel had been willing to make such a peace deal in the 1990s, it could have worked, but the only Israeli leader of that era who might eventually have offered such terms to the Arabs was Yitzhak Rabin. Since Rabin was murdered by a right-wing Jewish extremist in 1995, no other Israeli prime minister has been willing to go so far — including Olmert during his two and a half years in power.

But the new reality, which Olmert does not acknowledge, is that no Israeli leader will be free to make that deal in the next five or ten years. It is the right deal to make in Israel’s own long-term interests, but only if the Arab partners can guarantee that Israel will get permanent peace in return for giving back the land. They cannot guarantee that, because they don’t even know if they will survive.

Consider Syria. The old dictator died in 2000 after a mere thirty years in power, and his son still rules there eight years later, but the country is much less stable than it used to be. Many elements in Syrian society have been sharply radicalised by the American invasion of Iraq and the flood of refugees from there. Nobody knows if Syria is heading for a revolution, but the possibility certainly exists.

If there were a revolution in Syria, the winners would almost certainly be Islamists who reject any peace with Israel. So what Israeli leader in the next five or ten years could sell the public on a peace that returned the Golan Heights to Syrian control? A few days of violence in Damascus could turn that peace into a nightmare that sees a hostile Syrian army back on the heights that overlook northern Israel.

In the case of the Palestinians, the Islamists of Hamas are already in control of the Gaza Strip, and there is no single Palestinian authority for Israel to make a peace deal with. The notion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement in the current circumstances is purely a fantasy that is maintained to indulge the Bush administration.

Even Egypt, whose peace treaty with Israel is almost thirty years old, is not a reliable partner any more. If there were to be a truly free election in the next five years, the Muslim Brotherhood would probably form the next government — and they have already said that their first act would be to hold a referendum on the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. It would probably be rejected by the voters.

So even if Israeli voters were willing to listen to Ehud Olmert in principle, they would not dare to act on his advice now. Perhaps in time the likelihood of Islamist regimes coming to power in Israel’s neighbours will shrink. Perhaps there will then be a majority of Israeli voters who are willing to back the kind of deal that Ehud Olmert has just outlined. But not this year, not this decade, and probably not this generation.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 12. (“If Israel…power”; and “Even…voters”)

Israel: The Politics of Indecision

1 August 2008

Israel: The Politics of Indecision

By Gwynne Dyer

“I am proud to be a citizen of a country where the prime minister can be investigated like an ordinary citizen,” said Ehud Olmert on 30 July, announcing that he would resign as prime minister in September to defend himself against corruption allegations. He should be even prouder: three of Israel’s last four prime ministers were under investigation for corruption when they left office.

To be fair, it was a stroke, not the corruption charges he was facing, that finally drove Ariel Sharon from office, and Binyamin Netanyahu subsequently beat the charges against him after being forced out as prime minister. Politics in Israel is a blood sport, and only the strong survive. Not one of the country’s last five prime ministers has managed to serve out a full term of office.

What happens next is hard to predict. Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, and Shaul Mofaz, former army chief of staff and now transportation minister, are the leading candidates to succeed Olmert as leader of the Kadima party, but even if the succession struggle does not split Kadima and wreck the ruling coalition, an election is probably no further away than the spring of 2009. The likely winner of that election is Bibi Netanyahu, who is once again the leader of the right-wing Likud party.

Indeed, the main thing that has kept Ehud Olmert in office for the past two years, despite the disastrous miscalculation of his 2006 war against Lebanon, has been the fear on the centre and left of Israeli politics that the only alternative was a return to power by Netanyahu. And that, in turn, is a reflection of the great division that paralyses Israeli politics: between those who think the “demographic danger” requires major compromises on territory, and those who do not.

The demographic danger is that Israeli Jews will end up as a minority within the territory ruled by Israel. It is almost a reality already: the 600,000 Jews who lived in Israel when it was founded in 1948 have grown to six million, but despite the huge number of Palestinians who fled to surrounding countries in the various wars, a higher birth rate means that there will soon also be six million Arabs living in territory under Israeli control. And then there will be seven million, and then eight million…

Only a little over a million Palestinian Arabs still live within Israel’s 1948 borders and actually have Israeli citizenship, but the rest are not far away, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which have been under Israeli control for more than forty years. If Israel does not find a way of turning those territories into a separate Palestinian state, then sooner or later they will shift from supporting the “two-state solution” to demanding the one-state solution.

All of Palestine was a single colony under British rule. The partition of 1948, though mandated by the United Nations, was never enforced, and the real division of Palestine, accomplished by war, had very different borders: the Palestinians ended up with about one-sixth of the territory, not half. Then all the rest of former Palestine was conquered by Israel in 1967 — and although the Israelis never describe what happened as the reunification of Palestine, they promptly began building Jewish settlements all over the captured territories.

So in a sense, the single political space of the old British mandate of Palestine has been re-created, although only Israeli citizens can vote for the government that decides what happens there. Since the Oslo accords of 1992 there has been a “Palestinian Authority” that exercises some control over some of the occupied territories, but it is not an independent state. Moreover, for the past year there have been two rival Palestinian “governments” in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

Olmert was absolutely clear: if this single political space persists, and the Palestinians become the majority population within it, they will stop asking for their own state. They will just demand the vote — and Israel will have to choose between granting them their demand and ceasing to be a Jewish state, or rejecting it and ceasing to be a democracy.

That dilemma has been implicit ever since the Israeli conquests of 1967. It is now explicit and imminent. In fact, it is already the position of the Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip. So Olmert wanted to make a deal that gave the Palestinians their own state, in order to preserve an Israel that was both Jewish and democratic.

He never even came close, partly because the Palestinians are now deeply ambivalent about the two-state solution, but mainly because the Israeli electorate has never been able to choose between the two options. Too many Israelis want to hang onto the territories AND preserve a Jewish democracy, and do not accept that those goals are incompatible. Binyamin Netanyahu was their standard-bearer in the late 1990s, deliberately sabotaging the Oslo accords when he was prime minister, and he still is today.

Olmert, for all his faults, backed the two-state option. Netanyahu does not, although he says whatever is necessary to placate Washington, and he will probably be back in power within a year. The long paralysis in Israeli politics will continue.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“All…Strip”) Gwynne Dyer’s recent book, “After Iraq,” was published recently in London by Yale University Press.

Israel v. Hezbollah: Round Two

14 August 2006

Israel v. Hezbollah: Round Two

By Gwynne Dyer

The ceasefire in southern Lebanon will not hold. Israel will probably lose more soldiers killed in combat in the next month than in the past month (104). Ehud Olmert will probably no longer be prime minister of Israel by the end of this year. And it is all too likely that Binyamin Netanyahu will take his place.

The UN-sponsored ceasefire will not hold because Hezbollah has not been defeated. Despite a month of pounding by Israeli bombs and artillery, it still holds at least 80 percent of the territory south of the Litani river: in most places, Israeli forces have advanced no more than a few miles (kilometres) from the frontier. In the last few days before the ceasefire, Hezbollah was launching twice as many rockets into northern Israel as its daily average in the first week of the war.

So why would it now agree to be disarmed and removed from all of southern Lebanon, the home of its own Shia supporters? Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, was quite frank: “As long as there is Israeli military movement, Israeli field aggression and Israeli soldiers occupying our land…it is our natural right to confront them, fight them, and defend our land, our homes and ourselves.” Besides, the Israelis have now offered him an irresistibly tempting target.

Israel’s assault on Hezbollah was as much a “war of choice” as the US invasion of Iraq. Seymour Hersh claims in this week’s “New Yorker” that the Bush administration approved it in order to deprive Iran (Hezbollah’s ally) of a means of retaliation after US air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the San Francisco Chronicle reports that a senior Israeli army officer made Power-Point presentations on the planned operation to selected Western audiences over a year ago.

“By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we’re seeing now had already been blocked out,” Professor GeraldSteinberg of Bar Ilan University told the Chronicle, “and in the last year or two it’s been simulated and rehearsed across the board.”

Ehud Olmert was seduced by the plan because, lacking military experience himself, he needed the credibility that comes in Israel only from having led a successful military operation. Otherwise, he would lack support for his plan to impose unilateral borders in the occupied West Bank that would keep the major settlement blocks within Israel, while handing the rest to the Palestinians. So he seized on the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of three others by Hezbollah on 12 July, the latest in an endless string of back-and-forth attacks along the northern border, as the pretext for an all-out onslaught on the organisation.

Olmert’s lack of military experience also led him to trust the promises of General Dan Halutz, Israel’s chief of staff, that Hezbollah’s destruction could be accomplished mainly from the air, with Israeli ground troops only going in at the end to mop up. But Rule Number One for aspiring national leaders is: never believe air force promises.

Olmert launched his war, bombed lavishly all across Lebanon, pounded the south — and a month later Hezbollah still controlled almost all the territory and was launching several hundred missiles a day at Israel. Time for a ceasefire — but if he had no more than that to show for his war, he would be out of power very fast. So AFTER the UN resolution was passed on Friday, but BEFORE the ceasefire that formally took effect Monday morning, he launched an airborne invasion that scattered packets of Israeli troops all over southern Lebanon right up to the Litani.

Israel has not smashed the Hezbollah’s strong-points in southern Lebanon and driven its fighters out. It has deposited its own troops among them checkerboard-fashion, in some cases without any ground line of supply, in order to claim that it now controls the region. And it is counting on the UN resolution decreeing the disarming and withdrawal of Hezbollah, and an eventual hand-over by Israel to the Lebanese army and foreign peacekeepers, to protect its soldiers from severe embarrassment. This is probably Olmert’s last mistake.

It is hard to imagine that Hezbollah will resist the temptation to attack all the easy targets that Olmert has now given it in southern Lebanon. It is inconceivable that either the Lebanese army (itself mostly Shia) or the French and Italians (the core of the proposed peacekeeping force) will try to fight their way into southern Lebanon on Israel’s behalf. There is the potential here for Israel’s first serious operational defeat since the 1948 war.

That might be a blessing in disguise for Israel, if it persuaded enough Israeli voters that exclusive reliance on military force to smash and subdue their Arab neighbours is a political dead-end. There is little chance of that. The likeliest beneficiary of this mess is Israel’s archetypal hard-liner, Binyamin Netanyahu, who flamboyantly quit the Likud Party last year in protest at former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s policy of pulling out of the occupied Gaza Strip.

That split Likud and forced Sharon to launch a new party, Kadima, which now dominates the centre-right of Israeli politics and is the nucleus of Olmert’s coalition government. But Kadima may not survive this disastrous war, and the heir apparent, at the head of a resurgent Likud, is Netanyahu. The last opinion poll in Israel gave him an approval rating of 58 percent.

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To shorten to 72 words, omit paragraphs 5, 11 and 12. (“By 2004…board”; and “That might…percent”) IF YOU ARE OMITTING the last two paragraphs, also lose the last sentence of the first paragraph.