Herzl and Olmert

Herzl, Zionism's founder, was a pragmatic visionary, which may seem like a contradiction in terms.

herzl 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
herzl 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yesterday, the nation officially celebrated the 146th anniversary of the birth of Theodore Herzl with a special Knesset session and other events. Coming on the heels of Independence Day and the formation of a new government, it is interesting to contemplate how the founder of Zionism might view our current place in history. Speaking at the presentation of his government before the newly elected Knesset last week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: "The continued dispersed settlement throughout Judea and Samaria creates an inseparable mixture of populations which will endanger the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state. It is those who believe, as I do, in Jabotinsky's teachings and in full civil equality between Jews and Arabs, who must understand that partition of the land for the purpose of guaranteeing a Jewish majority is the lifeline of Zionism." It was not long ago that Olmert's mentor Ariel Sharon, or indeed Olmert himself, condemned anyone who suggested withdrawing from settlements at all, let alone doing so unilaterally. Now Olmert, in the name of Jabotinsky and heading a party composed mostly of ex-Likud MKs, has constructed his government in order to implement such a plan, which he argues has become essentially linked to "existence" and to "Zionism." Herzl, Zionism's founder, was a pragmatic visionary, which may seem like a contradiction in terms. Perhaps, however, it was precisely his ability to reconcile these conflicting impulses that led to his success. Some of our subsequent leaders - such as David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon - arguably exhibited a similar characteristic. Whether Herzl would have subscribed to this particular stratagem at this moment is hard to say. We are on safer ground, however, predicting Herzl's assent to at least one declared objective of our new government: that Jewish unity not be sacrificed at the altar of any program, no matter how ambitious or necessary. In his Knesset speech, Olmert continued, "I know how hard it is, especially for the settlers and those faithful to Eretz Yisrael, but I am convinced, with all my heart, that it is necessary and that we must do it with dialogue, internal reconciliation and broad consensus. ... The strength of this nation is in its unity. ... It is my intention to take all future steps through continuous dialogue with the wonderful settlers in Judea and Samaria. We are brothers and we will remain brothers." It is these words, perhaps more than any he has uttered, that need substance breathed into them and to be turned into a meaningful reality. It is easy to talk about unity, while blaming anyone who disagrees with you for violating that principle. It is easy to define consensus as one's own position, while branding everyone else an extremist. Achieving real unity and true consensus is much harder. But this difficulty, and the fact that absolute unity is neither possible nor desirable, does not absolve Olmert of ensuring that unity and consensus become true watchwords, rather than empty slogans. That, surely, is a central aspect of the Herzl legacy, a crucial component of any pragmatic vision for a viable Israel. The burden, however, is not just on the prime minister and his government. There must be some recognition by both sides that the other, however mistaken it may be, has the best interests of the Jewish people and state in mind. So far, the core opponents of unilateral withdrawal have concentrated on raising the physical, political, and emotional price of carrying out this policy. This strategy has failed so far, and is unlikely to succeed in the future - while at the same time maximizing the rift between the state and what was formerly among its most patriotic sectors. An alternative strategy would be to hold Olmert to the two related conditions that he has rightly set: that disengagement deliver a concrete shift of the diplomatic landscape in Israel's favor and that it be done by consensus and persuasion rather than force. There is some possibility that the people of Israel will understand and even sympathize with a conditional opposition to "convergence," as Olmert has dubbed his plan. Absolute opposition, on the other hand, will divide and endanger the country further, rendering it self-defeating in every respect.