Monday, June 25, 2007

A Close Encounter with Ehud Olmert: The Hamas Revolution in Gaza
June 25, 2007

By Gidon D. Remba

I had the opportunity hear Prime Minister Ehud Olmert address the American Jewish leadership last week on the eve of his encounter with President Bush. So many are excited about Olmert and Bush’s new plan to support and re-start peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, while isolating and pressuring Hamas and Gaza. Condi, Bush and Olmert are swooning all over Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the new Palestinian prime minister. Olmert is falling all over himself declaring Abbas to be his long-lost Palestinian peace partner.

Olmert is interested in exploiting the recent Hamas takeover of Gaza from Fatah to forge a new opportunity for the future, an opening, he says, for “more moderate forces under Abbas in the PA to build up a solid basis for a Palestinian state in the territories.” Now that the Palestinian government in the West Bank is free of all traces of Hamas, Israel will unfreeze tax revenues and take steps to improve the quality of life in the West Bank. “We want to project to the Palestinian public,” suggests Olmert, “ that when they refrain from terror, they have a chance for a different kind of life.” Israel will talk with Abbas, whom Olmert now calls “a genuine partner,” about a “political horizon to create the basis for an eventual Palestinian state.”

Olmert took pains to stress that “George W. Bush is a great partner in our war against the extremists,” and that the new Israeli policy is fully in sync with the Bush Administration's "war on terror." “With terrorists you fight, with others you make peace; this will be the agenda of my government,” announces Olmert, grateful to have found the agenda he lost on the way out of Lebanon. In short, the new Bush-Olmert policy, into which even the EU has bought, is: do business with Abbas and his government in the West Bank, while isolating and pressuring Hamas—“cauterizing” the cancer, in Bibi Netanyahu’s mixed metaphor on CNN—employing appropriate military force against Hamas in Gaza. In short, the West Bank first, Gaza later—or two states for one people, as the motto of the week had it.

Olmert even made sure to tell his audience that “the Saudis can play an important role in supporting moderate forces in Arab countries.” And of the Saudi-inspired Arab League Peace Initiative he declared: “I won’t say no to any initiative whose outcome is the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state in the Middle East”—a right which, for all its virtues in reversing the three noes of Khartoum, the Arab Peace Initiative does not affirm. And Olmert reminded his audience that “there are many Palestinians who genuinely want to make peace with Israel.”

These are, of course, welcome noises from Olmert. Olmert’s happy peace talk sounded like sweet music to the ears of progressive Jews, and no less so to the broader Jewish community which pines for a ray of hope in a seemingly hopeless region. Indeed, a number of left-of-center policy wonks, including former Clinton Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk (writing in the Washington Post) and IPCRI (Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information) co-CEO Gershon Baskin, have endorsed some version of the new Olmert-Bush nostrum for reviving a peace process with the de-Hamasified Abbas.

But there is a dark lining inside this silver cloud. A policy of isolation and coercion against Hamas harbors a logic of escalation within. Hamas will not sit idle, and will redouble its efforts to blow up Olmert’s neat panacea. Israel’s hand may be forced in Gaza by escalating rocket fire on Sderot and Ashkelon, and the IDF could be compelled in time to launch a costly ground incursion. Remember what happened the last time Israel retaliated in Gaza with a big operation? The North erupted.

Ha’aretz reported today that “Hamas is planning to carry out suicide bombings in order to undermine the efforts by Israel and the West to bolster Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas…and to prevent any support from reaching Abbas and Fatah, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin told the [Israeli] cabinet yesterday. Diskin also warned that the impression that Fatah is powerful in the West Bank is only an illusion… The Shin Bet head also warned that Fatah is a divided organization, and without a strong party it will be impossible for Abbas' forces to prevent terrorism in the West Bank.”

Déjà Vu

The Prime Minister was asked by several Jewish leaders what kind of economic aid he will provide to Abbas to strengthen him. Olmert deftly batted the questions aside. “What will I tell Abbas,” he quipped, “if I tell it all to you?” Olmert’s sympathizers chortled along with him. But I would wager that Olmert will tell nothing of any consequence to Abbas or anyone else. In short, Olmert’s new policy will soon be revealed for the cruel hoax that it is.

By refusing to countenance any return to a national unity Palestinian government with Hamas, Olmert is giving Hamas every incentive imaginable to become the great spoiler. The hoax will, in the end, be on Olmert. The only question will be whether the war that Olmert brings in Gaza—and then in the North—will be a bigger fiasco than last summer’s. And will Labor will be saddled with half the blame, as the Israeli public shifts further to the right, believing that if militarism is needed, better to bring in the real thing than a pale facsimile? Thanks to Olmert’s new fiasco, Bibi Netanyahu, darling of the right, may be crowned King of Israel once again.

Lurking behind Jewish leaders’ skeptical queries of Olmert was the deeper question: after squandering two previous opportunities to bolster Abbas, when neither the US nor Israel took the necessary steps to help him show the superiority of his way to the Palestinian public, what will Olmert do differently this time? We’ve been here before, with everyone proclaiming a miraculous turning point that can be exploited to advance the cause of peace, and Olmert leading the cheers.

Who can forget the death of Arafat and the appointment of Abbas as president? Aluf Benn has written of that period: “Israel's willingness to help Abbas was at best half-hearted. It never went beyond token moves and empty gestures.” (“Spinning The Disaster In Gaza,” Spiegel, June 20, 2007). Who can forget the momentous unveiling of the Road Map on the eve of the Iraq war with Bush clutching Abbas and Sharon at Aqaba, promising to ride herd on both to insure that they fulfilled their commitments? Who would ride herd on George W. Bush to insure that he and the United States lived up to their commitments?

Olmert, the Rabbi and the Goat

What will Olmert do to strengthen Abbas? Olmert’s reply to this question put me in mind of the tale of the rabbi and the goat. Unfreezing the tax revenues to Abbas and Fayyad’s PA is a necessary step—but as Olmert himself said of the sanctions on Iran—it is a positive step, yet insufficient, in this case woefully so. It behooves us to recall the tale: After complaining of life in a single cramped room with his large family of nine, a man is told by his rabbi to take a goat into the room. A week later, he returns to the rabbi more distraught than before. The rabbi counsels him to let the goat out. One more week goes by, and the man returns to the rabbi, exclaiming "Life is beautiful! We enjoy every minute of it now that there's no goat -- only the nine of us!"

Just what is Olmert’s bold new economic aid policy for relieving West Bank poverty, suffering and joblessness and bolstering Abbas against Hamas? Now that West Bank Palestinians have lived in the cramped sanctions room for a year, Ehud Olmert will let the goat out: he will give back the tax revenues Israel collected on the PA’s behalf from the time they began their flirtation with Hamas. And Olmert expects Abbas to exult over how much his “family” enjoys living in the cramped little room now that the goat is gone and the tax revenues are back.

And how will Olmert provide Abbas with a political dividend to demonstrate the superiority of Abbas and Fatah’s way of negotiating with Israel over Hamas’ way of terror and violent “resistance”? Olmert will “talk” to Abbas—often even--about a “political horizon” to create the basis for an “eventual Palestinian state.” Are you getting excited already? One can only imagine the fever that will overtake the Palestinian public now that Olmert will stop boycotting the moderate Abbas and actually start talking to him about a possible future state perhaps somewhere over the horizon, after letting the goat out of the room.

Condi Rice has proposed that Israel proceed to negotiate a final agreement with Abbas outlining the permanent borders of a Palestinian state, creating a palpable “political horizon” for which Abbas and his Fatah party will receive credit. The agreement would not yet be implemented, Rice suggested, until the moderates gained strength, acquiring the ability to deliver more effectively on security. The deal would instead serve to build confidence and support for moderates on both sides. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni reportedly backs this approach. Olmert has rejected it.

It took former Mossad Chief Ephraim Halevy to ask (in Ynet) the obvious question that seems to have eluded Olmert:

“What is needed on Israel's part in order for Abbas not only to survive but also to establish himself as an authoritative and recognized leader both in his country as well as across the Arab world? Is this price worthwhile? Is it possible to pay it in practice? Is the return guaranteed?”

But of course this question has not really eluded Olmert. It is strategically avoided because the answer is unwelcome. Olmert wants a process, not peace; he wants the sizzle, without the steak. As long as there is a process pointing somewhere over the horizon, and all Olmert need do is talk, offering some gestures to Abbas (after removing the goat), he has his agenda: a roadmap that never reaches its destination and keeps on going as long as Olmert remains in office.

Wiser heads—including Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller (in the Washington Post), and Daniel Levy (whose views are articulated on his Prospects for Peace blog and quoted in the New York Times last week)—are already forecasting the collapse of the new Bush-Olmert gambit.

The moral of the story is this: Coercion and force will not work against Hamas in Gaza. The only path to build a stable Palestinian neighbor next to Israel leads through a revived Fatah-Hamas national unity government. If the two movements attempt to reconcile, the US and Israel should refrain from actions which undermine Hamas. This is the paradox of peace. Those who profess to be for peace, promising to engage the moderates and crush the extremists, are actually disserving the cause of peace, rendering Israel less secure; whereas those who engage both Hamas and Fatah, co-opting Hamas into attainable pragmatic security and political arrangements to Israel’s benefit, without insisting on impossible conditions that no other Arab party has had to fulfill, are the true champions of peace.

The US and Israel should cease all covert arming of Fatah forces, a Bush-Olmert strategy which provoked Hamas to engage in preemptive attacks against Fatah in Gaza, leading to the Hamas takeover and the collapse of the Hamas-Fatah unity government, an outcome both Israeli and American leaders had sought. Bush and Olmert were indeed fomenting civil war in Gaza and hoping, as has been long reported, to bring about regime change in the Hamas-led PA. For the moment they may seem to have succeeded; but their success is built on quicksand.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Tragedy Foretold: Israel's Unheeded Prophet, Gidon D. Remba

A Tragedy Foretold: Israel’s Unheeded Prophet


Gidon D. Remba

Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle
June 14, 2007

Much as it took forty years of wandering in the desert before God allowed the Jewish people to enter the Promised Land, it took forty years of wandering in the desert of ignorance for today’s Jewish people to learn the truth about Israel in the Promised Land. Thanks to two intrepid Israeli historian-journalists who pored through recently declassified government archives, we now know that Israeli leaders understood in 1967 that the conquest and continuing control by Israel of the West Bank “would weaken the relative strength of Israel’s Jewish majority, encourage Palestinian nationalism and ultimately lead to violent resistance.” These conclusions, reached by top officials from the Mossad, IDF Military Intelligence and the Foreign Ministry, “were approved by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and the army’s chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin,” reported Tom Segev in the New York Times on the 40th anniversary of the war, summing up one of the most stunning revelations from his groundbreaking new book, 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East.

“Have you already thought about how we can live with so many Arabs?” asked Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol of his cabinet on the third day of the Six Day War. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan proposed to give the West Bank “autonomy,” with Israel maintaining control over security and foreign relations.

Yaakov Shimshon Shapira, Israel’s Minister of Justice who hailed from the Mapai party (the precursor of the Labor Party), responded: “In a time of decolonization in the whole world, can we consider an area in which mainly Arabs live, and we control defense and foreign policy? Who’s going to accept that?” Shapira opposed annexation of the territories “arguing that it meant turning Israel into a binational state, in which Jews would eventually become a minority.” If Israel did not return almost all of the West Bank to Jordan, “we’re done with the Zionist enterprise,” he declared.

These prophesies—now the conventional wisdom in Israel and the contemporary watchwords not only of the Labor and Meretz parties but of Prime Minister Olmert’s centrist Kadima party, consisting mainly of rightist Likudniks who got mugged by reality—we learn from Gershom Gorenberg’s pathbreaking The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977.

Gorenberg further discovered that “The following month, two top foreign-ministry officials -- Shlomo Hillel and Mordechai Gazit”—General Gazit was soon to become the first military governor of the West Bank—“wrote a policy memo urging a rapid diplomatic solution for Gaza and the West Bank, because ‘internationally, the impression could be created ... that Israel is maintaining a colonial regime.’”

Not long after, Yigal Allon, who succeeded Eshkol as acting prime minister and became Israel’s foreign minister, realized that a “Palestinian enclave under Israeli rule ‘would be identified as ... some kind of South African Bantustan.’” Justice Minister Shapira, along with Theodor Meron, the Foreign Ministry’s legal counsel, told Eshkol in 1967 that Israeli civilian settlements in the newly conquered territories would “contravene the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” At a 1972 Labor Party debate on the future of the occupied territories, Israel’s Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir, who served under both Eshkol and Golda Meir, “railed at the ‘moral danger’ of Israel's dependence on Palestinian labor, which was creating ‘a class that does the clean work and those who do the dirty work’ -- akin ‘to negroes in the United States.’ Continuing to rule over Arabs without granting them equal rights, Sapir said, would put Israel in a class with ‘countries whose names I don't even want to say in the same breath,’” reported Gorenberg.

Gorenberg summed up this tragedy foretold in a recent essay in the American Prospect: “The occupation was colonial, and would produce rebellion. Exploitation of Palestinian labor was racist. Settlement would be illegal. Palestinian autonomy would resemble a Bantustan, a creation of grand apartheid. Israel would become an international pariah. These were not the arguments of distant campus radicals enamored of their megaphones; they were the all-too-accurate premonitions of Israeli patriots.”

But in the decade after the Six Day War, when Israeli and American Jews were intoxicated by Israel’s great victory, drunk on messianic fantasies of redemption and chauvinistic triumph, few Jews knew of these prognostications. Even fewer were prepared to heed the warnings of Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, who urged the government immediately after the 1967 war to return virtually all the occupied territories forthwith: not in exchange for peace, but in Israel’s own highest national interests.

Yet for those who lived in Israel during all or part of that decade—as I did in the years after the Yom Kippur War—there were more than ample opportunities to hear these truths in Jerusalem, from a man who can perhaps be considered Israel’s post-1967 prophet: the Orthodox Jewish philosopher and neurophysiologist, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, with whom I had the privilege of studying during my post-Yom Kippur War years at the Hebrew University. Leibowitz, dubbed by Isaiah Berlin as the “conscience of Israel,” derided the religious ultra-nationalist deification of the Land of Israel as idolatry, a corruption of Judaism’s core, the commandments.

Soon after the Six Day War, long before the first or second intifada, he foresaw that as a “state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners…our situation will deteriorate to that of a second Vietnam, to a war of constant escalation without prospect of ultimate resolution…The administration would have to suppress an Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab Quislings on the other. There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Force, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations…Our security has been diminished rather than enhanced as a result of the conquests of this war.”

Leibowitz perceived more clearly than perhaps any member of his generation the ways in which rule over another people would corrupt and undermine Jewish society and democracy. Israel would devote a disproportionate share of its resources and energies to the expansion of settlements in the territories, deflecting the country from its primary mission of addressing the “problems of the Jewish people in the state and in the Diaspora.”

An ardent Zionist who rejected the canard that Zionism was an oppressive colonialism, he was among the first to recognize that Zionism in the hands of the messianic right was imposing a colonial regime on another people. A decade before the first intifada, Leibowitz warned his fellows that “a colonial regime necessarily gives birth to terrorism…The nature of colonial rule does not matter. Whether it treats the subjects with a light or heavy hand, whether it grants them material or cultural benefits or exploits them to its own advantage—such rule is not tolerated. The subjects rise up, or will rise up, against it and will employ any means they consider effective.”

Indeed, in his battle against the idolatry of Gush Emunim—the “Bloc of the Faithful”—its false and un-Jewish sanctification of land as an absolute value, he often borrowed from the biblical prophets. He reminded us that “Not every ‘return to Zion’ is a religiously significant achievement. One sort of return which may be described in the words of the prophet: ‘When you returned you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination.’ (Jeremiah 2:7)”

To those who claimed that the whole Land of Israel was given to the Jewish people by God’s promise to Abraham and his progeny for an inheritance, he retorted in the words of the prophet Ezekiel, with “the same Scriptures to which the national religious fools appeal for support for their lust for conquest: ‘Therefore say to them, thus says the Lord: You eat with the blood and lift up your eyes towards your idols, and shed blood; and shall you possess the land? You stand upon your sword, you carry out disgusting deeds…and shall you possess the land?’ (Ezekiel 33: 23-26)” Thundered Leibowitz: “To speak of the divine promise to Abraham and his issue as a gratuitous gift, to ignore the conditions of the promise, and to disregard the obligations it confers on the receivers is a degradation and desecration of the religious faith.”

He repeatedly chastised his fellow Israelis and their leaders, in the manner of the prophets, reminding them that “the partition of this country between the two nations is the only feasible solution, even if neither of the two sides will recognize its justice and become inwardly reconciled to it. The alternative is war to the bitter end, which would amount to a catastrophe.” Today, the Jewish right would have us believe that it was the attempt to end the occupation through the Oslo peace process which caused the terror of the second intifada. But Leibowitz warned Israelis time and again that “Israel’s rule over the Palestinian Arabs” in the occupied territories is “likely to cause renewal of hostilities;” that the “’unpartitioned Eretz-Yisrael’ is internally unstable,” transforming Israel into a polity that will no longer be a Jewish state. Its administration would instead evolve into a “system of political domination” whereby Israel would rule “over two peoples that do not cohere as a single nation…To the intense national antagonism between them will be added the passionate hatred evoked by the rule of one people by the other.”

To those on the right who denied Palestinian claims to nationality or national claims to the land, he responded with bracing realism:

“Two nations inhabit this country…The history of the Jews and of this country for the last 2,000 years and of the Arab people for the last 1,400 years has created one land for two peoples, each of which feels most deeply that this land is his…Such attachment goes well beyond any ideology, theory or faith. Recognition of it must serve as a point of departure for any feasible political program… In view of this inescapable fact, there is neither point nor sense to all the philosophical-historical and legalistic arguments assessing and weighing the respective ‘rights’ of each side… The partition of the land between the two nations is an inescapable historical necessity…In the given situation there is only one choice between the two outcomes: war or partition. There is no third way out.”

If any hope arose over time of reconciling some portion of the Arabs and Palestinians to accepting the reality of Israel’s existence in its original internationally recognized pre-1967 lines—or some facsimile thereof—this prospect would likely be undermined by the powerful gusts of animosity, of terror and “repressive countermeasures,” which Israel’s occupation of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would inevitably provoke, promised Leibowitz. The right, of course, would insist that no such opportunities for breakthrough towards peace are possible, insuring through their suicidal policies that this became a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the creation of the first Gush Emunim settlements in heavily populated areas of the West Bank, positioned so as to prevent the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state, Leibowitz recognized immediately that such settlements “will add fuel to the flames and make amelioration [of the conflict] more and more difficult.”

Thus spake the unheeded Jerusalem prophet Yeshayahu—known to some as the third Isaiah. And so it was, and is. Israel’s bitter contemporary tragedy was foretold; it is we who have refused to listen.

Gidon D. Remba is National Executive Director of Ameinu: Liberal Values, Progressive Israel, the leading progressive Zionist organization in the U.S., and the US affiliate of the World Labor Zionist Movement. His commentary is available at and