Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ehud Olmert, the Newest Dove

Packaging old ideas as new ones is something the Israeli leadership are experts at. If you look at every supposed peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, beginning in 1993 through two weeks ago, you’ll find that every one of them says just about the same thing, and more importantly doesn’t say the same things. The Israelis are encouraged in this approach by their U.S. backers, who are even more gifted at recycling. Every U.S. administration since Nixon’s has vowed that it was going to be the one to solve the “Middle East Crisis,” and they’ve all gone about it the same way – arm Israel to the teeth, back every war crime they commit, threaten the Palestinians for daring to assert any rights at all, and then at the nth hour, find an Israeli hawk to have a “change of heart” so they can sell it to the Palestinians as a miracle from on-high, too good to turn down.

It’s never worked yet. If it works this time, which is unlikely, it will only be because the Palestinians have been beaten down to an unprecedented level in the last eight years. For the first time, the Israelis and U.S. have succeeded in sparking serious internecine fighting in Palestine, especially in Gaza. This has been largely accomplished through the siege of Gaza, which has left people literally starving, without power for weeks, lacking access to basic medicines and desperate for any way to make a living. In other words – Iraq.

Last week, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave an interview to the leading Israeli newspaper in which he castigated himself for his previous right-wing views and said Israel must give up 95% of the West Bank plus 5% of Israeli territory and “most of” East Jerusalem in order to make peace. He claimed that "What I'm telling you now has never been said by an Israeli leader before me."

That claim is flatly false. Remember Camp David 2000? Ehud Barak offered 93% (or so) of the West Bank, plus a portion of Israeli territory to make up for what they weren’t getting, plus “nearly all” of East Jerusalem. The Palestinians, so the legend goes, rejected this “generous offer,” demonstrating once again that they were not “partners for peace.”

Three years ago, in 2005, it was Ariel Sharon who had had his epiphany and gone from right-wing hawk to moderate peacemaker, leading a breakaway movement from the Likud party that formed Kadima. Olmert was one of the first to follow him. Two years earlier, Sharon had rocked the world by using the word “occupation,” committing himself to the creation of a Palestinian state under the U.S.-promoted “road map.” The result? The completion or construction of over 250 miles of Apartheid Wall, isolating 78 villages and annexing nearly 50% of the West Bank; and rapid expansion of settlements in the West Bank, in contravention of agreements under the road map.

Not to be a complete cynic, I believe Olmert has had a significant change of heart. Where he was once a hard-liner, he now believes it is necessary to compromise. But this change did not come about as suddenly as he now represents. In 2003, Olmert, then mayor of Jerusalem, gave another frank interview to Yediot Aharonot, this one endorsing Sharon’s policy of “unilateral disengagement.”

“We are approaching a point where more and more Palestinians will say: ‘There is no place for two states between the Jordan and the sea. All we want is the right to vote,’” Olmert said at that time. “The day they get it, we will lose everything.” He added that “I shudder to think that liberal Jewish organizations that shouldered the burden of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa will lead the struggle against us.”

If Olmert gave too much credit to Jewish activists in toppling South African apartheid, his use of the analogy is important. The fact is that more and more Palestinians have indeed begun saying, in the last few years, “All we want is the right to vote”; the “one-state solution” which had very little support in the Palestinian territories in 2003, has become a mainstream, if still minority, position in 2008. And use of the word “apartheid” to describe Israeli policy has become more common by the international community, including small but growing numbers of Jews both inside and outside of Israel.

Given these facts, what is remarkable is not Olmert’s statement, but that the offer to the Palestinians has not sweetened, eight years after the collapse of the Oslo process and the start of the Second Intifada. The fact that it hasn’t speaks to the success of the very hard-line policies that Olmert now supposedly castigates himself for.

It turns out that we don’t have to speculate or read between the lines of Olmert’s self-provided hype to find out what he really meant. In doing some research for this essay, I turned up a surprising article published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on September 27, one day before the Yediot interview appeared.

Haaretz reported,

“Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday rejected an Israeli peace proposal, which included withdrawal from 93 percent of the West Bank, because it does not provide for a contiguous Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

“Nabil Abu Rdainah, Abbas’s spokesman, told the official Palestinian news agency WAFA that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan showed a ‘lack of seriousness.’”

“The centerpiece of Olmert's detailed proposal is the suggested permanent border, which would be based on an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank. In return for the land retained by Israel in the West Bank, the Palestinians would receive alternative land in the Negev [desert], adjacent to the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians would also enjoy free passage between Gaza and the West Bank without any security checks, the proposal says.

“A senior Israeli official said the Palestinians were given preliminary maps of the proposed borders.

“Under Olmert's offer, Israel would keep 7 percent of the West Bank, while the Palestinians would receive territory equivalent to 5.5 percent of West Bank. Israel views the passage between Gaza and the West Bank as compensating for this difference: Though it would officially remain in Israeli hands, it would connect the two halves of the Palestinian state…

“The land to be annexed to Israel would include the large settlement blocs, and the border would be similar to the present route of the separation fence. Israel would keep Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, the settlements surrounding Jerusalem and some land in the northern West Bank adjacent to Israel.

“Since Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently approved more construction in both Efrat and Ariel, two settlements relatively far from the 1949 armistice lines, it is reasonable to assume that Olmert wants to include these settlements in the territory annexed to Israel as well.”

I call this article surprising because it seems not to have been covered in the international press at all. Considering the hoopla with which previous episodes of this saga have been met, I don’t know what to make of the silence greeting this round. Is it just that the world has gotten tired of supposed breakthroughs that are clearly not? Olmert’s lame duck status? I don’t know, so I’m not going to spend time guessing. Instead, let’s look at what he actually said.

First, he presented “preliminary maps,” but didn’t commit to anything – a position that must feel quite familiar to Abbas, who was the chief negotiator at Camp David, when Israel also presented various maps but no concrete offer of borders. Since Olmert is saying that the border would be “similar to the present route of the separation fence,” and the “separation fence,” aka the Apartheid Wall, is built 80% on Palestinian land, leaving 16% of West Bank land on the western (“Israeli”) side, it’s hard to see how such a plan could give the Palestinians 95% of the West Bank, even if Israel were not planning to hold onto settlements like Ariel, some 25 kilometers inside the Green Line.

Second, according to Haaretz, Israel would receive the settlement blocs immediately – or more accurately, retain them, but would not hand over any Israeli territory to the Palestinians, nor establish the free passage to Gaza, until “the PA,” i.e., Abbas’s Fatah faction, takes back control of Gaza from Hamas. So in fact, the Palestinians might never get contiguous territory.

Third, the Palestinian state to be established would be expected to be demilitarized, without an army. The Palestinians have demanded that their security forces be capable of defending against ‘outside threats.”

Olmert’s principal claim to a radical change of views is on the question of Jerusalem – which was deliberately left out of his negotiations with Abbas, as a concession to the right-wing Israeli religious party, Shas. Where for most of his career he championed a unified Jerusalem under complete Israeli control, he now supports some kind of partition. This, again, is in the interest of winning the “demographic war”: "Whoever wants to hold on to all of the city's territory will have to bring 270,000 Arabs inside the fences of sovereign Israel. It won't work," Olmert said. So obviously, his proposal is to keep the “temporary” Wall that runs through Jerusalem in perpetuity and turn it into a border.

To understand why this is not such a big breakthrough, one has to be familiar with the political geography of Jerusalem.

The center of the city is the walled Old City, a densely populated 0.9 kilometer area, divided into four quarters: Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter and Armenian Quarter. The Old City houses the Western (Wailing) Wall of Herod’s Temple, the holiest Jewish site, Al Aqsa Mosque/Haram ash-Sharif, the third most sacred site in Islam, and the Via Dolorosa and Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which comprise the Stations of the Cross. Under the armistice of 1949, the Old City and the areas east of it were Palestinian areas under Jordanian control, and the areas to the west were annexed by Israel.

When most people imagine Jerusalem, they visualize the golden Dome of the Rock or Orthodox Jews praying at the Wailing Wall. What we call Jerusalem, however, comprises 125 square kilometers (43 miles) sprawling to the west and the east. It includes ancient Palestinian villages, stately old Jewish neighborhoods, new modern suburbs, farm land, high-rise pre-fab tenements filled with immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Bedouin sheep camps. To the Palestinians, all the villages between Bethlehem to the south and Ramallah to the north are part of Al Quds (“The Holy”), which the Israelis call Yerushalayim. Israel since 1967, but especially since the beginning of the Oslo peace process in 1993, has been confiscating Palestinian land and building new (illegal) settlements in the outlying areas of Jerusalem and the international press obligingly calls them “neighborhoods” or “suburbs” of (Jewish) Jerusalem.

At the time of the 1948 war, the population of Jerusalem was about two-thirds Jewish, with the vast majority of Jews living in the western part of the city. The partition plan of 1947 called for Jerusalem to be an international city. Under the Armistice of 1949, Israel annexed the territory west of the Old City and Jordan ultimately annexed the eastern areas, including the Old City. Between 1,500 and 2,000 Jews had to leave the Old City at that time, and tens of thousands of Palestinians were forced out of West Jerusalem. (The exact numbers are very confusing – generally reliable Palestinian sources say 64,000-80,000, but the British Mandate census recorded only 65,000 Palestinian Arabs in all of Jerusalem in 1948. Probably, this is yet further testimony to the many possible definitions of “Jerusalem.”) One of the most notorious massacres by the Israeli forces was at the Jerusalem village of Deir Yassin in 1947. Other depopulated Palestinian villages in Western Jerusalem included Liftah, which was famous for its citrons, a citrus fruit used in the Jewish festival of Sukkot (which happens to begin tomorrow night).

Currently metropolitan Jerusalem is home to about 750,000 people, of which roughly 64% are Jewish. The government is continually expanding the borders of Jerusalem to include more Jewish areas, in its effort to maintain demographic superiority to support its claim to the city. At the same time, it has declared Palestinian villages such as Azzariya and Ar-Ram, which have always been part of Jerusalem, to be in the West Bank, and enclosing them on the West Bank side of the Wall. House demolitions, refusing building permits to Palestinians, denials of residency permits for spouses of Jerusalemite Palestinians to live in the city, construction of settlements in East Jerusalem and the Old City, and the construction of the Wall, are all tools in this demographic war. Olmert has until now been a prime supporter of this policy of “Judaizing” Jerusalem. As recently as June 2008, he defended increased settlement construction in East Jerusalem in the face of Condoleeza Rice’s criticism of the policy as “unhelpful” to the Annapolis peace process she was trying to kick-start.

Now remember that the Old City is 0.9 square kilometers, out of a total of 125 sq. km, and you will understand why it is easy to believe that Olmert is indeed proposing to offer the Palestinians “nearly all” of East Jerusalem. I’ve walked along the Wall in Jerusalem, and it’s probably less than a mile from Damascus Gate, the eastern edge of the Old City. Even with Israel retaining settlements like Har Homa, Pisgat Ze’ev, Ma’ale Adumim, Mevaseret Tzion and Gilo, the Palestinians would still no doubt be getting some 90% of East Jerusalem. This is roughly the same deal that was offered at Camp David in 2000. The late Israeli scholar, Tanya Rinehart, looked at the map and said that what the Israeli and U.S. negotiators did was label the village of Abu Dis “Jerusalem.” They didn’t lie – Abu Dis, is _part_ of East Jerusalem. I expect that in the coming weeks, Condi Rice and Tony Blair will step up to tell the Palestinian negotiators that Olmert’s conversion is a dream come true and they need to sign now and ask questions later. If they don’t, the international press will report once again that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

What the Palestinians will not be getting under an Olmert Plan, as they would not have under the Camp David plan, is the Old City and sovereignty over their holy sites. Nor will they be getting a border on the Green Line (the internationally recognized armistice line from 1949). If Muslim Palestinians cannot go pray at Al Aqsa Mosque, and Christians cannot walk the Stations of the Cross at Easter, nothing is going to convince them they are in Jerusalem, and no Palestinian leader who tries to do so is going to stay in power.

Olmert _has_ made a major change in his outlook. He used to support ethnic cleansing, and now he supports apartheid. In both cases he is driven by a fear of the ultimate catastrophe – democracy. As for the Palestinians, they remain between the Dome of the Rock and a hard place.