Uri Avnery: Olmert and the Pussycat

By Uri Avnery

Can a pantheress turn into a pussycat? Impossible, a zoologist would say. But last week, we saw it happen with our own eyes.

Condoleezza Rice came here to teach Ehud Olmert, once and for all, who is boss. The President of the United States wants to make order in the Middle East, and the government of Israel has to fall into line. Otherwise

Two days later, nothing of the threat remained. Olmert refused again. And what happened? Nothing happened. The fearful pantheress slunk home, her tail between her legs.

Muammar al-Gaddafi, a unique combination of dictator and comedian, complimented the "dark-skinned African woman", and disclosed that he likes her. She has but to raise her little finger, he said, and all the security chiefs in the Arab world, who are the real rulers of their countries, come running. But even Gaddafi did not argue that she had Israel on the run.

* * *

JULIUS CAESAR, as is well known, reported to the Roman Senate "I came. I saw. I conquered." Condoleezza could report to the US Senate: "I came. I saw. I capitulated." Who to? To a failing Israeli prime minister, whose popularity rating is approaching zero and who practically nobody expects to survive to the end of the year.

In the ongoing debate about which is wagging which – the dog its tail or the tail its dog – the proponents of the tail have won the day. In the round just finished, Israel has won against the United States.

This bout started with President Bush deciding, it seems, to clear the decks for action. The US is preparing for war against Iran. For that purpose, it has to put an end to the mess in Iraq, unify the pro-American Arab regimes and find a solution to the Palestinian problem.

In the beginning, everything worked just fine. All the leaders of the Arab countries (except Gaddafi, the inevitable absentee) gathered for a summit meeting in Riyadh. The king of Saudi Arabia was reconciled with Bashar al-Assad. Mahmoud Abbas brought Hamas leader Ismail Hanieh with him. President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon, the protégée of Syria and Hizbullah, took his place at the round table.

The united Arab world breathed new life into King Abdullah’s peace plan, which offers Israel of recognition, peace and normalization with the entire Arab world, in return for its withdrawal to the borders of June 4, 1967. The plan pays lip service to a "just solution" of the refugee problem (and how could it avoid that?) but states unequivocally that any solution depends on Israeli agreement.

If the Arab world had made us this offer on June 4, 1967, we would have raised our eyes to heaven, lit candles and uttered the old Jewish blessing: "Blessed are you, Lord, our God, king of the world, who has kept us alive, sustained us and enabled us to reach this day."

But this week nobody lighted candles and blessed the "sovereign of the worlds" for the Arab peace offer. On the contrary, Olmert & Co. were racking their brains to find a way out of this trap. Since they could not think up a more convincing reason, they argued that it was impossible to accept an offer that mentions the UN resolution about the refugees. Most of the media, under the baton of Olmert’s spokespersons, kept quiet about the explicit dependency on Israeli agreement.

In short, Nyet!

* * *

THAT WAS the moment for the huge American steamroller to get going. After all, vital American interests are at stake.

All the Arab rulers who depend on the US are crying out that they cannot pledge their support as demanded, so long as the pus is still streaming from the occupation tumor. How can the King of Saudi Arabia and the President of Egypt rally their masses for a war against Iran, when they and their subjects are exposed on Aljazeera, morning, noon and evening, to the horrifying sight of the Israeli army attack dog sinking its teeth in the flesh of an old Palestinian woman and locking its jaws?

Condoleezza arranged a showdown with Olmert and was ready to submit an ultimatum. But it seems that at the last moment new instructions came from the White House: Let go and come home.

It appears that President Bush is even weaker than Olmert. In the two houses of Congress he has suffered a stinging defeat on Iraq. The American public has no stomach for another war, this time against a country far more united and determined than Iraq. In this political situation, the last thing he needs is a head-on collision with the pro-Israeli lobby, with its Jewish and Christian wings.

The two professors, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, won this round. In this clash between the national interests of the United States and the Government of Israel and its America fans, the Israeli side won.

The steamroller did not roll. Condoleezza went to Olmert and sat with him for three hours. Her final statement sounds more like the purring of a domestic cat than the snarling of a predator.

* * *

AND THE Israeli public? The public that saw another historic opportunity going past and being ignored?

No doubt, the huge majority would have supported Olmert, if he had announced his acceptance of the Arab offer. But only a small minority is ready to rebel against Olmert when he does the opposite.

The silent majority includes the victims of the next wars, their parents and children. Could it be that they don’t care? That it does not concern them?

The public does not get excited. Does not complain. Does not raise its voice. Does not demonstrate.

This week, the Peace Now movement called for a demonstration, to demand that Olmert respond positively to the Arab summit initiative. The event took place near the residence of the Prime Minister in Jerusalem. The organizers brought the flags of all the Arab states, including Palestine. That was a refreshing sight for those who remember how 20 years ago an activist was driven away from a Peace Now demonstration because he was carrying a small Palestinian flag.

How many came? A movement that once called out 400 thousand demonstrators after the Sabra and Shatila massacre, attracted this time (true, on a work day) 250 people. Neither Haaretz nor any other newspaper mentioned the colorful demonstration with one word, no TV channel showed a single picture. Except for Aljazeera.

What is the reason for this indifference? Fatalism? Fatigue? Past disappointments? Distrust of the government and/or the Arabs?

No doubt: something dramatic is needed to shock this public into action. One commentator suggested that the Saudi King follow the example of Anwar Sadat and come to Jerusalem, speak in the Knesset and address the Israeli public directly. But Sadat made his historic visit only after Moshe Dayan had promised, in secret meetings in Morocco, that Menachem Begin was prepared to give back all of the Sinai peninsula. Olmert is not promising anything.

* * *

DID OLMERT respond? You bet. After all, it was impossible to ignore it altogether.

He declared that he was ready to meet with the Saudi king. Naïve people could be favorably impressed. The Prime Minister of Israel was ready to meet with leaders of the Arab states. Nice. Very nice, indeed.

Actually, this is an old gimmick of Israeli governments, from the days of David Ben-Gurion on. A meeting with the head of one of the most important Arab states could be interpreted as normalization, and normalization is the main Israeli demand. Meaning, Israel achieves its main objective without giving anything in return. No Arab leader does, of course, fall into this trap.

Immediately afterwards, Olmert declared that not a single settlement outpost would be dismantled until the Palestinians "fight terrorism". This also has an historical background: when President Bush agreed to recognize Israeli "population centers" – the large settlements set up beyond the Green Line in total violation of international law and previous American demands – Ariel Sharon undertook to dismantle all the settlements established after his taking office in early 2001. Even under Israeli law, these settlements ("outposts") are illegal.

This undertaking is also included in the poor old Road Map. According to it, Israel was obliged to dismantle these settlements in the first phase, and simultaneously the Palestinians had to disarm their organizations.

Amir Peretz, who as Minister of Defense is responsible for this sector, declared again and again that – any minute now – he was going to dismantle the outposts. In practice, not a single one was dismantled. Now Olmert declares that first of all the Palestinians must "fight terrorism", and only then will the government decide what to do about the settlements.

In other words: no outpost will be dismantled.

In such a way, the "window of opportunity" is closing. (To use a rather stupid American expression. After all, a window is an opening through which one views what’s happening outside, not one to pass in order to do something. For that there are doors.)

* * *

ON THE eve of Passover, Olmert has poured out his thoughts, such as they are, in all the media.

Israel’s largest mass circulation daily splashed a sensational headline across its front page: "Olmert: Within Five Years We Can Achieve Peace!"

What? Five years? In 1993 we signed the Oslo accord, which foresaw the final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinian people within five years. Since then, 13 years have passed, and even negotiations on this have not yet started.

It seems that the "five years" belong to the same world of illusions as Condoleezza’s "political horizon": as you go forward, it recedes.

-Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal

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