Interesting Times: The power of persuasion

Ari Shavit, one of the most thought-provoking journalists in Israel, is hard to ideologically pigeonhole.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
Ari Shavit is one of the most thought-provoking and influential journalists in Israel. Ideologically, he is hard to pigeonhole. In penetrating interviews in Haaretz, he came to the rescue of Binyamin Netanyahu and later Ehud Barak when each was particularly besieged. He has written scathing pieces against the settlers, almost characterizing them as the enemy. Now he has shocked us again by accusing Ehud Olmert of "leading the country to the beginning of the end" - not of the wars against us, but of our existence. According to Shavit, Olmert is poised to withdraw from 91 percent of the West Bank - close to what Barak offered to Yasser Arafat in exchange for full peace - but for nothing in return. "The history books will record Olmert's unconditional withdrawal," Shavit writes, "as the unconditional surrender of Zionism." Olmert "takes an extreme unilateral position to the point of absurdity, totally ignoring the fact that the conflict is bilateral and the political reality is multilateral."
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Though he is accusing Olmert of ignoring Palestinians, it is not clear that Shavit is advocating talking to a Hamas-dominated PA. Meanwhile, coming at Olmert from the Right yesterday in our pages, the always-thoughtful Evelyn Gordon characterized his plan as "wild fantasy." As Gordon explains, "not one single country has been willing to declare Israel's 'occupation' of Gaza ended; instead, the world still holds Israel responsible for Gaza's well-being, demanding, for instance, that it allow Gazans to work in Israel and [utilize] Israeli ports. So how does Olmert imagine that a far less complete withdrawal in the West Bank would be rewarded not only with international acknowledgment that the 'occupation' had ended, but with recognition of Israel's unilaterally defined borders as well?" THESE CRITIQUES get to the heart of the problem with disengagement: that Israel seems to be acting like a gallery owner who gives the proprietor of a competing gallery, who covets his entire shop, a prized painting while saying, "don't worry about paying me, my reward will come." The first owner then expects to be paid, not by the recipient of his gift, but by third parties who recognize his generosity in undefined ways. This was not, however, exactly the case for disengagement from Gaza, nor is it necessarily what Olmert has in mind. When Ariel Sharon was the gallery owner, he received his "payment" before he delivered the goods: an April 2004 letter from President George W. Bush stating positions on two final-status issues. Bush's letter stated that "it seems clear" that Palestinian refugees must settle in a Palestinian state, "rather than in Israel." Second, it stated that "it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949" (emphasis added). Did this vague "I.O.U." - which also included a US commitment to a "viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent" Palestinian state - constitute sufficient payment? The problem, however, is less in the price we settled for, but the fact that Israel has structured it as a transaction in the first place. Our situation, after all, is not that of two bucolic art galleries behaving within the normal bounds of competition. Israel is more like the last independent gallery threatened by a chain that does not shy away from violence in expanding its empire, and that also has designs to dominate the global gallery market. Our argument to the authorities, or to competing chains who are threatened now or in the future by the same violent tactics, should not be to prove how generous we are, but that they - in their own interest - should be changing their policy by much more explicitly taking our side in the conflict. The greatest problem with the disengagement paradigm is that it assumes that the policy shift the West should have made in the wake of the collapse of Oslo, the failure of Camp David, 9/11, and now the rise of Hamas must be paid for by Israeli concessions. Withdrawals are, in and of themselves, no substitute for power of persuasion. Withdrawals may act as an important catalyst for the West to change long-held positions. At the same time, however, they can also have the opposite effect by implying that the overdue Western rethink of its own interests only makes sense as a concession to Israel. ISRAEL, AT the same time, must not become so enamored with what unilateralism ostensibly delivers on its own that we forget the real purpose: to change Western policy. Whether what Olmert proposes threatens or bolsters the Zionist project depends entirely on the solidity and extent of the shift in Western policy in Israel's favor. Right now, US policy is held hostage to what has become a conceit: that a comprehensive peace agreement is in the offing, and that nothing must be done to prejudice "final-status issues." The claim that the "right of return" to Israel is one such negotiable final-status issue has encouraged the Palestinian fantasy of destroying Israel demographically, thereby fueling Palestinian rejectionism while driving Israelis toward unilateralism. Olmert's job is to persuade the US to more definitively declare that the "right of return" to Israel is tantamount to denying Israel's sovereignty and right to exist, and is therefore not a subject for negotiation. This can be actualized by beginning to change the refugee status of Palestinians in Arab countries and the PA. Secondly, he must persuade the US to drop its objections to Israeli construction inside the security fence, since such construction in no way blocks the prospect of a Palestinian state. Both steps would be taken in the context of pushing off the goal of a full peace so long as the Palestinians are unable to abandon terrorism and embrace the rule of law. If another disengagement will help persuade the US to make these policy shifts, it may be worth doing - provided US policy is changed before Israel acts. The dangers that Shavit and Gordon cogently raise do apply, however, if Olmert allows disengagement to become an end in and of itself.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11