Sunday, January 13, 2008

Can You Believe Olmert?

Believing Olmert
By Gideon Levy
Ha'aretz -- Sunday -
January 13, 2008

After listening to many of his statements, some of them very impressive, one comes to recognize that Ehud Olmert perhaps truly desires peace with the Palestinians. The fact that he has not zigzagged, not even once, that he only reiterates the same things, speaking like Uri Avnery (even if 40 years late), that he does not backtrack or stutter - only reinforces this feeling.

It is permissible, therefore, to succumb to the temptation and believe that the man who told Haaretz on November 28, "two states, or Israel is finished," indeed has undergone a profound change. However, there's a catch: This welcome change of consciousness has not yet been accompanied by any practical action.

The settlements are flourishing, 10,000 Palestinian prisoners are rotting in prisons, Gaza is starved and blacked-out, Shin Bet security service investigators are torturing, the checkpoints incarcerating and the acacias blooming in the territories. The conclusion: Olmert wants, but is unable. Or perhaps he wants, but is afraid. The common explanation: If he takes any practical step to implement his intentions, his government will collapse immediately. Olmert is imprisoned in his impossible coalition. If he only dares to do something, Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai will quit, and Olmert will be left without parliamentary support.

Well, this is an illusion. Olmert's first test, if he survives Winograd, is to dismantle the coalition that is blocking him. He has a suitable alternative: Meretz instead of Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu, for a total of 60 Knesset seats. Another historic effort to bring the Arab factions into the government would create a stable coalition of 70 seats. A coalition that allows you to make peace. This step is not devoid of risks.

This type of coalition is liable to be fragile - what will Shaul Mofaz do? How will the Pensioners vote? And it is doubtful whether the Arabs would join. Perhaps they only would provide support from the outside. This coalition would also take a barrage of sharp public criticism. But someone who speaks in terms of "Israel is finished" cannot allow himself - or us - the luxury of preserving his cozy, safe and paralyzing coalition while Israel continues to slide toward the denouement he himself has envisioned.

How can Olmert himself rationalize his inaction in light of such a terrifying vision? He failed to save the state because of Lieberman? He did nothing because of Yishai? Enough of the futile courting of Lieberman, enough of fearing Yishai to the point of mobilizing the U.S. president to lobby them. The time has come to show the refusers of peace the door.

"Courage to Change before the Calamity" wrote Yitzhak Ben-Aharon in "Lamerchav" in January 1963 in another context, and never has this mighty and archaic sentence sounded more fitting and relevant. Yes, mister prime minister, courage to change before the calamity, which you yourself have so clearly foreseen. And this courage starts with dismantling your government and forming a different government instead, one that is more in tune with your views.

With such a coalition and with the determination Olmert expressed in his speeches, an assault could be mounted toward the political goal. Thousands of prisoners could be freed, changing at once the atmosphere in the relations with the Palestinians. A voluntary evacuation-compensation bill could be passed, outposts could be dismantled, funding for the settlements could be halted and the long journey of extracting the most dangerous abscess of all from the territories could begin.

The siege on Gaza could be lifted, and Hamas could be called upon to join the process, which would only benefit the miserable residents of the Strip. And it would even be possible to curry favor in the eyes of U.S. President George W. Bush, something that is of excessive importance, unfortunately, for the prime minister.

A new government in Israel, whose establishment would underline the seriousness of its intentions to generate a real change in direction, would herald a historic turning point. Olmert would take a risk upon himself in forming it, but what does he have to lose? What is the alternative? To survive another year, to make lofty speeches, to flatter Bush, to sit idly and go down in history as a footnote between one calamity and another? Now is the time and this is the step: a peace government for Israel.

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