Interesting Times: The perils of inevitability

What worked for Sharon will backfire for Olmert.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
Ehud Olmert learned the power of inevitability from Ariel Sharon, but he learned too well. Sharon managed to do something that was at first unbelievable - disengagement - by determinedly repeating that he would withdraw from Gaza as if it were a fait accompli. Yet before he arrives at the White House next week, Olmert should realize that this tactic that worked for his mentor could be his own undoing. Sharon needed to establish a sense of inevitability. Domestically, people tend to support what they believe will happen anyway, so it increased Sharon's support and demoralized his opponents. Internationally, Sharon needed a diplomatic "down payment" from the US, which he could only receive if the US was convinced that disengagement was actually going to happen. Inevitability, however, has potent side effects. It does not sit well with conditionality or democracy, since both introduce an element of doubt. Sharon, for example, never said, as Olmert has regarding his convergence plan, that moving ahead depended on both international support and domestic consensus. Sharon definitely sought and obtained both to a degree, but he was careful to do so without puncturing the aura of certainty he had so painstakingly created. INEVITABILITY worked for Sharon, so why is it bad for Olmert? The reason is because Olmert is not Sharon, the West Bank is not Gaza, and Hamas is not Abbas. Olmert's situation is quite different. The paradigm of unilateralism is not only believable, it's the status quo. He cannot point to the history of the nation that he carries on his shoulders and to his storied past as a hawkish general and say "trust me" on security. Olmert may be respected for his political skills, savvy and even courage, but he is no father figure. And handing over more territory to what has already become Hamastan is different than doing so when it was a theoretical possibility. What is more, how can Olmert ask George Bush to make controversial policy changes if Israel will withdrawal no matter what? Accordingly, Olmert needs to realize that the balance has shifted. Inevitability alone won't work for him the way it did for Sharon. He has already recognized this insofar as he has openly conditioned a new withdrawal on establishing a "deep understanding" with the international community and on a real dialogue with settler movement. But it is not clear that these conditions themselves are real, or whether Olmert intends only to do the best he can on these fronts but move ahead, regardless. THE TIME for Olmert to make his break with Sharonian inevitability-ism is next week, in his crucial meeting with the US president. His instincts may tell him the opposite: to impress upon Bush how determined he is to establish Israel's borders during Bush's remaining term in office. But it is even more important to show that he cannot do it without Bush's help, and how convergence fits into the wider strategic picture. In fact, the conversation should not open with convergence at all, but with Iran. A single rhetorical question for the president might do the trick: A year from now, if it looks like the international community is still not serious about stopping an Iranian nuke and the Hamas regime has regained international funding despite its support for terrorism, can you imagine me convincing Israelis to withdraw from most of the West Bank? The connection between Iranian nukes and Hamas terrorism is a direct one. Besides the unacceptability of an Iranian nuclear threat in its own right, a nuclear Iran can be expected to greatly increase its support for terrorism against Israel. Olmert should explain to Bush that the real purpose of unilateralism is to indirectly achieve something the US can and should do directly, in support of its own interests: shift the burden of peace onto the shoulders of the Arab world. Israel is trying to force a de-facto state on the Palestinians because it has been unable to hold them accountable for their actions "under occupation." But what if Israel withdraws and even then the world continues to hold Israel accountable for being attacked, rather than the Palestinians for refusing to make peace? If this happens, what has this painful process achieved? For the last few decades, the world has acted as if it believes that the Arab world wants peace, while looking for proof that Israel is willing to meet its condition for peace, the establishment of a Palestinian state. Unilateralism, then, is Israel's bargain with the international community - we'll show that we want a Palestinian state even more than the Palestinians do; and you'll stop blaming us for the conflict. OLMERT SHOULD tell Bush that he needs the international community to hold up its end of the bargain. This means giving Israel full support, including recognition of Israel's right to treat all the territory inside the fence as its own absent concrete evidence that the Arab world has abandoned its quest to destroy Israel. Such evidence would be Arab statements that the "right of return" to Israel must be abandoned, dramatic steps toward normalization with Israel, and pressure on Hamas to end terror and accept Israel. Olmert should offer Bush his partnership in shaping a world in which, two years from now, Iran and Hamas have been chastened and the Arab world, for the first time, feels the full burden of the need to make peace with Israel. A world, in short, in which the jihad to destroy Israel and subdue America is on the retreat. The alternative, Olmert might frankly point out to his host, is for both leaders to leave office having failed to ensure that their countries, and the world, are clearly on the way to becoming freer and safer.