Tom Segev: Olmert’s True Colors

By Tom Segev

He embroiled Israel in a superfluous and failed war, and this week threatened to join up with the most Kahanist politician active in Israel since the death of Rehavam Ze’evi. What is happening to us, to our Ehud Olmert? Nothing. Olmert is coming back to himself.

A year and a half ago, it seemed that he stood behind Ariel Sharon’s decision to dismantle the settlements in the Gaza Strip. Olmert grew up, they said then; he realized that the territories that Israel captured in the Six-Day War have caused it nothing but damage, and that the continued occupation endangers Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. It was not unreasonable; after all, people really do grow up. A lot of good people embraced and welcomed him.

Olmert seemed at the time like a man who could be prime minister. Precisely because he’s a professional politician in a business suit, not one of the giants of the founding generation, it appeared that he would be able to manage the conflict with the Palestinians. He promised to dismantle most of the settlements in the West Bank. Many people believed that it was the most daring and promising peace plan since the Six-Day War.

Less than six months after he became prime minister, it has become clear that Olmert was not new, but just a political mirage. Ultimately, Olmert is Olmert is Olmert. Someone will have to explain some time how it was that so many Israelis got caught up in the belief that Olmert offers a new hope. The interim answer is that many Israelis apparently needed the man he pretended to be, and primarily the promise he made: if not an agreement, then at least a unilateral withdrawal to the fence. So much naivete and hypocrisy and self-deception went into this belief, so little readiness and ability to recognize the truth: There is no unilateral agreement.

What has happened since then places the "new Olmert" somewhere alongside the forgotten image of the late Yigael Yadin, perhaps the father of all political disappointments. Yadin taught the public an important lesson, but he, too, has been forgotten for now. "Why didn’t you take an interest in knowing who the real Yadin is before you elected me?" he once asked in an interview with Haaretz.

The real Olmert disappeared from sight for only a limited time, but is now returning and being revealed as the person he was since going into politics some 40 years ago. He prefers land to peace, because he doesn’t believe in peace with either the Palestinians or the Syrians. He is completely closed off to the terrible humanitarian disaster underway in Gaza, and the horrors of the occupation in the West Bank are continuing as before. There is no basis for expecting Olmert to dismantle the settlements in the West Bank; the more he returns to himself, the more dubious it is that he ever planned to dismantle them. All the signs indicate that he has no intention of dismantling even those settlements classified as illegal outposts.

Olmert is not the first prime minister to miss a chance to make peace with Syria, in exchange for the Golan Heights, but Bashar Assad appears to be the first Syrian president since 1949 to be practically begging for peace. Olmert could have gone down in history as a Menachem Begin, who gave Sinai back to Egypt. Instead, he is reacting to Syria’s offers of peace with contempt, loathing and threats: As long as he is prime minister, Israel will not give up the Golan Heights, he declared, and for a moment, it was possible to think that the results of the war in Lebanon assured a glorious victory over Syria. This is the familiar Olmert, the real one.

And the real Olmert is also the man now making nice to Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman is talking about changing the government, about an inquiry committee, about civil unions; these are respectable issues. But Lieberman is also suggesting that several communities populated by Arabs be left out of the borders of the state, to leave the Jews a "solid majority." He suggests giving up Wadi Ara as part of an agreement to swap land with the Palestinians. Such a deal would revoke the Israeli citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Arabs and force them to become citizens of Palestine. It’s taken for granted that their agreement won’t be sought. This platform places Lieberman alongside the worst of the extremist right-wing parties active in Europe today.

It is said that talk of Lieberman’s joining the government is meant only to frighten the Labor Party and Shas. But what this move shows about the ethical aspect of Olmert’s worldview should frighten every decent person. Yes, Lieberman has already served as transportation minister and Rehavam Ze’evi was also part of the government, and in general, who’s looking for ethics in politics anyway? But even in politics, there are moments that require society to take a break from its cynicism and recall the basic principles of democracy and human rights. A decent person should not even think about bringing into the government a man who wants to remove from the state one out of every five citizens, just because they are not Jewish. The real Olmert sees in this man a desirable partner.

 © Haaretz, 10 October. 2006 

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