In the Diaspora: Olmert's tutorial

The PM has provided Barack Obama with an object lesson in Middle East policy: the balance between peacemaking and war-making.

January 22, 2009 17:44
3 minute read.
Freedman, Samuel, columnist 88

Freedman, samuel 88. (photo credit: )


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As I write these words, on the day before Barack Obama is inaugurated as president and the day after Israel declared a cease-fire in Gaza, the eyes of Golda Meir stare at me from across the living room. One of my most cherished possessions is the bust that my mother, then dying of cancer, sculpted of her Zionist heroine a quarter-century ago. Still, this heirloom carries a meaning that my mother, in her unalloyed admiration, had not intended. Every time I look at Golda, and think of American Jewry's reverence for her, I cannot help but recall that Israelis, for the very good reason of the Yom Kippur War, view her rather less sentimentally. They lived, or died, with the consequences of her leadership. So I am duly cautious from my safe perch in Manhattan to commend Ehud Olmert to Obama. Most of my Israeli friends and relatives are alternately infuriated by and ashamed of him - infuriated by his mishandling of the Second Lebanon War, ashamed of the cloud of corruption that has surrounded him. Yet, as the Obama regime waxes and the Olmert regime wanes, the Israeli prime minister has provided the American president with an object lesson in Middle East policy: the balance between peacemaking and war-making, conciliation and self-defense. The first part of this tutorial came in the form of Olmert's Rosh Hashana interview with Yediot Aharonot. In the on-the-record conversation with Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer, Olmert spoke the hard truths of achieving a two-state solution: It will require withdrawing from virtually all of the West Bank and redividing Jerusalem. "Our goal should be, for the first time, to designate a final and exact borderline between us and the Palestinians," Olmert said, "so that the entire world, the United States, the UN and Europe can say, 'These are the borders of the State of Israel, we recognize them and we will anchor them with formal resolutions in the major international bodies. These are the recognized borders of Israel and these are the recognized borders of the state of Palestine...' Who seriously thinks that if we sit on another hilltop, on another hundred meters, this will make a difference for Israel's basic security?" I WAS not surprised when, a few months later, The New York Review of Books, of all publications, approvingly reprinted the Yediot interview, despite its previous disdain for Olmert. The NYRB is virtually the house organ for a certain kind of Jewish anti-Zionism as embodied by its frequent contributor Tony Judt. It weeps crocodile tears to this day over the demise of the putative Jewish paradise in Weimar Germany, and for the past several years has been propounding the notion that Hamas is actually a moderate and diplomatically accessible organization. Olmert's mea culpa about the settlement enterprise conformed to the NYRB's party line. But amid all the vital and bold words that Olmert uttered on behalf of a two-state solution before it is too late, he also said in blunt terms that the front for the last war and for the next one is the home front and the threat is from missiles and rockets. He went on, "We will need to answer these threats." Now, of course, the answer has come in the form of the invasion of Gaza, and with it the necessary second part of Olmert's lesson for Obama. The necessity of negotiating with Fatah is simultaneously the necessity of confronting Hamas. Olmert has, as Obama must, taken Hamas at its word that it intends the destruction of Israel and that it must be deterred. All the conscientious outcry about civilian casualties in Gaza should not obscure the larger picture of who and what made this war unavoidable. As Obama takes office, we in America have heard much about the influence of Abraham Lincoln on him. Anyone acquainted with Lincoln's speeches and actions knows that he was fully capable of seeking to heal the rupture in his country - "with malice toward none, with charity for all," as he famously put it - while sending the Union army to defeat the secessionists. The two parts were complementary, not contradictory. Olmert is no Lincoln, we all know, and I don't imagine too many American Jewish mothers are making sculptures of him. Yet in the last months of his troubled and unpopular tenure, he has shown our incoming leader that he will need two hands, one for treaties and one for arms, to make any positive change in the Holy Land.

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