Essay: Take your time, Mr. Prime Minister

If we've waited nearly 40 years since the 1967 war for a solution, we can wait a little longer.

hillel halkin 88 (photo credit: )
hillel halkin 88
(photo credit: )
Dear Ehud Olmert, Don't be scared by my addressing you. I don't expect you to read this letter. In fact, I don't even expect you to know of its existence. Although perhaps one of your aides charged with monitoring the press will clip it and file it away, it's unlikely to reach you personally. Consider it a literary convention. Still, as someone who voted for you in the recent elections, permit me to say a few words. I voted for you largely, as did many other Israelis, because of your policy of what you have taken to calling hitkansut - "disengagement," "convergence," "realignment," "consolidation," or whatever else you want to call it in English. In short: an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank, on the model of last summer's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, to borders determined by ourselves as an alternative to a negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians. Over the past several years I have written several times in The Jerusalem Post, as well as elsewhere, about why I think such a policy is our best hope for extricating ourselves from the dilemma we're in. I still think it is. And I'm still happy I voted for you. You've put together a reasonably good government, and even if you haven't had to make any major decisions yet, you seem competent and at ease in your job. You don't make a habit of stepping on other people's toes, as did some of your predecessors, and the human warmth you project appears to be genuine. All that's to the good. STILL, BEFORE rushing ahead, as you seem determined to do, to implement a major West Bank withdrawal, with all the enormous difficulty and cost that will involve, I suggest that you reflect on two things. The first is that, contrary to what you seem to think, the March elections did not give you a popular mandate for further disengagement on the West Bank. Your own party, Kadima, was the only party to run with disengagement on its platform, and quite frankly, it did poorly. To go into an electoral campaign with a projected 40-42 Knesset seats and come out of it with 29 is no great accomplishment, no matter what spin you put on it. And it certainly isn't an accomplishment for disengagement. Mind you, I'm not saying that most Israelis wouldn't support West Bank disengagement if they were asked to vote either for or against it. I'm just saying that that's not what they were asked to do in the last elections, in which less than 25 percent of them did vote for it. This might not matter if we were talking about an ordinary issue. But this is not an ordinary issue. It touches on the most profound aspects of Israel's geography and security, of its past and future, of its conception of itself and of what it stands for - and it arouses commensurate argument and emotions. Don't make the double mistake that Yitzhak Rabin did. Rabin first went ahead and signed the Oslo agreement without asking the Israeli public about it, and then thought it enough to have it ratified in the Knesset by the narrowest of margins. As a result, he tore the country apart when he shouldn't have. The narrowest of margins may be enough to pass a budget or a tax bill, but it isn't enough by which to decide a country's long-term fate. For that, one needs a clear national consensus, such as existed when Menachem Begin agreed to withdraw from Sinai in 1979, and when Ariel Sharon pulled out of Gaza last summer. That's the first thing. THE SECOND thing is that, in order to create such a consensus, you'll have to do better than you did on your recent trip to Washington. Yes, I know: Your talks there about West Bank realignment were only preliminary. But it's important for you to understand that you'll have to get more than just America's passive agreement to such a step. Of course you'll get that much; why shouldn't you? Even President Mubarak of Egypt doesn't mind our packing up and leaving the West Bank, though he'd rather we formally handed the keys over to the Palestinians when we did. What most Israelis will want to know before they agree to undergo the national trauma - far worse than Gaza's - of evacuating tens of thousands of Jews from their homes, and of leaving large parts of their patrimony in Judea and Samaria forever, is whether they are getting permanent borders that the world, or at least America, will recognize, or simply another set of temporary ones that sooner or later they will be asked to retreat from again. If it's going to be the latter, most of them, myself included, would rather stay put and not give up an inch. This doesn't mean, of course, an American announcement extending official diplomatic recognition to the lines we withdraw to. It's possible to appreciate why the United States can't do this. But there is no lack of ways short of such an announcement in which Washington can indicate that these are its intentions. If you can't get it to do so, the whole idea of West Bank disengagement makes no sense. This will take time. The Americans expect you to go through the charade of trying to negotiate with Abu Mazen, and you will have to go through it. What they - and Europe - need to understand is that, ultimately, they will not be doing just us a favor by backing West Bank disengagement. They will be doing themselves one, too. It's the only practical way to defuse Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab tensions, which is something the whole world has a stake in. Take your time, Mr. Prime Minister. Put the package together. If we've waited nearly 40 years since the 1967 war for a solution, we can wait a little longer. But if disengagement is the solution, we want it spelled out for us before we decide on it. Where the borders will run. How we can be sure we won't have to leave them. What deterrent we are prepared to use to make sure we aren't attacked from the other side of them, and so on and so forth. And when the package has been put together, come back to us. It can be in the form of either a referendum or new elections; it doesn't matter. Ask us again for the mandate you didn't get this time. If you've done your homework properly, you'll get it.