By Uri Avnery
Ehud Barak delivered an ultimatum: if Olmert is not replaced, he, Barak, will dismantle the coalition. But when the time approached, he understood that Olmert would drag him down with him into the terrible abyss called elections
What excited the Israelis this week? What glued them to the TV and radio sets? What made them rush to buy newspapers at the kiosks?
The drama in the Knesset, when it seemed for a moment that the members would act against the laws of nature and vote to dismiss themselves? The violations of the Tahdiyeh around the Gaza Strip, after the execution of Jihad militants in Nablus? The peace negotiations with Syria? The discussion about the exchange of prisoners with Hizbullah in the north and Hamas in the South?
Don’t be ridiculous.
The subject arousing tumultuous outbursts of emotion was the European football championship, Germany against Turkey, Spain against Russia.
Compared with these, the games played in the political arena were a mere sideshow.
For example: Ehud Olmert’s game of survival. Since it was established beyond doubt that he is corrupt, his government has lost the most important asset of any government in a democratic society: trust.
Nobody any longer believes what this government says. All its decisions are a priori suspect.
It reminds me of a scene in an old movie based on Jules Verne’s novel “Around the World in Eighty Days”. In order to win a bet, the hero has to cross the American continent by train at maximum speed. When the locomotive runs out of coal, he dismantles the wagons, one by one, and throws their wooden walls and seats into the fire. After that, he starts to dismantle the locomotive itself, until all that is left is the engine, the boiler and the wheels.
The government of Israel is like this train. To survive, it is sacrificing all its assets.
Ehud Barak delivered an ultimatum: if Olmert is not replaced, he, Barak, will dismantle the coalition. But when the time approached, he understood that Olmert would drag him down with him into the terrible abyss called elections. According to all the polls, elections would bring the Likud to power. The two Ehuds frantically looked for a way out. Now they stand like two exhausted boxers, clasping each other to avoid falling over.
Olmert survives for the moment. Until when? Nobody knows. But one thing is certain: this is a government unable to do anything at all.
Example One: The tahdiyeh. The army wanted the ceasefire, because it has no ready means to stop the launching of missiles from the Gaza Strip, and the last thing it wants is to re-occupy it — an expensive, dangerous and unpromising operation.
It wanted and did not want the ceasefire. Wanted logically, did not want emotionally. I wrote recently that it would be easy to put an end to the ceasefire: “The army will kill half a dozen Islamic Jihad militants in the West Bank. In response, the organisation will fire a salvo of Qassams at Sderot. The army will announce that this is a violation of the agreement and answer with an incursion into the Gaza Strip…” But even I did not expect this to happen so soon.
Did anyone decide on this provocation? Olmert? Barak? The Chief of Staff? The division commander? Nobody is saying. Only one thing is certain: there is no government to speak of.
Example Two: The prisoner exchange. The German intermediary has at long last hammered out an agreement for the exchange of our two prisoners who are in the hands of Hizbullah for some Lebanese prisoners. The present assumption is that the two were fatally wounded during their capture and died long ago. But there is no confirmation: Hizbullah does not say.
In the Jewish religion, the “Redemption of Prisoners” is a sacred obligation. In the Middle Ages, when a Jew from London was captured by Turkish pirates, the Jews of Istanbul were obliged by their religion to pay his ransom. In the Israeli army, the Redemption of Prisoners has been elevated to the highest standing: much as one does not leave a wounded soldier in the field, one does not leave a prisoner in the hands of the enemy. More than once, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners have been exchanged for a single Israeli.
The Second Lebanon War was started (at least officially) with the aim of releasing these two prisoners without an exchange. For this aim, the lives of 150 Israeli soldiers and civilians and more than a thousand Lebanese fighters and civilians were sacrificed. Without success. If so, how can anyone object to the release of five Lebanese prisoners for their return?
The problem is posed by a myth. One of the five to be released is Samir Kuntar, who, with his comrades, was responsible for an especially brutal attack in Israel. The “Murderer Kuntar” (as he is always called in our media) is engraved in the national memory as a monster, who murdered the Haran family in a particularly ugly way. In Lebanon, of course, he is considered a national hero, who carried out a daring exploit deep in enemy territory.
Somebody must decide. Olmert decided. The next day he decided the opposite. Two days later, he reversed his decision again. Everything for a simple consideration: what will help him to survive? What is more popular?
The same applies to the soldier Gilad Shalit, the prisoner of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. At least we know that he is alive. Hamas allows him from time to time to send a message.
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue”, the Bible reminds us (Proverbs 18:21), and that includes the written tongue. Say “captured soldier” instead of “kidnapped soldier”, “Palestinian prisoners of war” instead of “Palestinian criminals”, “enemy fighters” instead of “murderers with blood on their hands”, and everything looks simpler. But the vociferous media, always on the lookout for higher ratings, pour oil on the fire by their choice of words.
So Olmert cannot decide. What is more popular? The release of the soldier, who has already spent two whole years in a dark cellar and whose life is in danger, or the refusal to free “murderers” with “blood on their hands”? Secret public opinion polls are regularly consulted, and there is still no decision.
Example Three: Syria. There seem to be negotiations. They seem to talk about peace. The Turks are inviting negotiators from Israel and Syria to a hotel and will shuttle between the rooms in “indirect” negotiations.
This is all theatre. They drink wine from empty goblets. Nobody believes seriously in a peace that would necessitate the removal of the Israeli settlements from the Golan. And in the meantime, the settlements keep on growing.
The idea that Olmert has the moral and political strength to liquidate these settlements is ludicrous. He himself would not dream of it. Indeed, he does not make even the slightest effort to prepare public opinion for such an eventuality. Even in the best of cases, this would be possible only after a resolute and sustained effort of persuasion, which will surely be accompanied by a great public storm.
So why the performance? Each of the parties has its own reasons:
Bashar al-Assad exploits it, with great talent, in order to get out of the “axis of evil”, to prevent an American military attack on him (which has already become extremely unlikely) and to break the bonds of isolation.
The Turkish government, menaced by its domestic enemies, such as the army and the courts, is gathering prestige and furthering its main ambition: to join the European Union.
Even the agile Nicolas Sarkozy smells an opportunity. After coming here on a tour of pandering, assisted by his stunning wife (his criticism of the settlements was almost ignored by the media), he now wants to host Olmert and Assad in Paris, in a great show, around the same table (but without shaking hands). Who can say no to a person who is about to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union, and who aspires to become Napoleon the Fourth?
But Olmert is, of course, the one to gain the most. This week, from the Knesset rostrum, he thundered back at the Likud members who showered him with derisive catcalls: “You do not want peace!”
So there he is: not Olmert the corrupt, not Olmert the failure, but Olmert the brave, sacrificing himself on the altar of Peace, he who any minute now will realise the dream of generations, if only he is allowed to remain in power.
Example Four: Palestine. All the above applies even more to the relations with Palestine. They meet. They embrace. They exchange promises. There is a host of mediators, all of whom want to garner something for themselves.
This week a particularly loathsome performance was held in Berlin, under the auspices of Angelika Merkel, who also has honoured us recently with a pilgrimage of obeisance. It was a conference “for the Palestinians”. What did they not talk about? About the occupation. About the settlements. About the Wall. About the thousands of prisoners in our hands. And about the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem.
So what did they talk about? About the training of the Palestinian police, which will safeguard the security of the occupation. About the building of Palestinian prisons, to lock up Hamas members. The main thing is Law and Order — the law and the order of the occupation.
And who were the stars there? The inevitable Tony Blair. The tragicomic Condoleezza Rice. And, of course, Tzipi Livni (who demanded, on the very same day, that the Israeli army enter Gaza).
Once upon a time, the Israelis were absorbed both by football games and the political game. There was a profound emotional involvement in both. Now only football remains, a game played by transparent rules. What one sees is what is there. One can watch it without revulsion, while politics arouses general contempt and abhorrence.
That is the price we are paying for Olmert’s survival.
-Uri Avnery is an Israeli peace activist. He served three terms in the Israeli parliament (Knesset), and is the founder of Gush Shalom. He is a regular contributor to PalestineChronicle.com.