At the conclusion of last summer’s war in Lebanon, former Chief of Staff Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon, made perhaps the most serious accusation ever leveled at an Israeli prime minister. He charged that the last 48 hours of fighting, in which 34 soldiers were killed (over a quarter of all military deaths in the war), was undertaken for no reason other than political spin. At that point with a U.N. ceasefire already poised to go into effect, Ya’alon charged, there was no chance that Israel could achieve any of the goals of a large-scale ground operation.
The same charge of political spin can also be leveled at Olmert’s "last chance" speech delivered at the grave of Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion last week. The speech itself was filled with much high-flown rhetoric: "I would consider it a great sin, not only towards our generation, but towards future generations as well, if we did not do everything in our power to reach a mutual understanding with our Arab neighbors, and if future generations had cause to blame the Government of Israel for missing an opportunity for peace."
Yet Olmert knows full well that there is nothing that his or any other Israeli government could do to bring peace, with our Arab neighbors. Such a peace depends on a Palestinian decision – as yet unmade – to focus on building a better future for Palestinians in a state of their own rather than on the destruction of Israel. And Olmert also knows that no matter how generous an offer he makes to the Palestinians with regard to the borders of a Palestinian state that no Palestinian leader will accept his condition that he renounce the "right of return."
So, in the end, last week’s speech was all about public opinion. Olmert’s governing Kadima Party is a cobbled together, ad hoc group of politicians from across the political spectrum joined together only by their common ambition. The party ran on the platform of Olmert’s so-called "convergence plan," involving further unilateral withdrawals from a large swath of Judea and Samaria. The war in Lebanon, from which Israel withdrew in 2000, and the perceived failure of the Gaza withdrawal, have dampened the public’s enthusiasm for further unilateral steps. As a consequence, Olmert’s convergence plan was recognized as a dead letter, and his government left without any credible raison d’etre.
The Sde Boker speech was just one of a series of newly announced initiatives designed to cover up the government’s lack of purpose and distract attention from the ever growing number of scandals involving senior ministers, from the prime minister on down. Such "spinology," in Baruch Leshem’s phrase, is fast substituting for actual governance in Israel. As was said during Ariel Sharon’s premiership, "The deeper the investigations [of the prime minister] during the week, the bigger the headlines in the Friday newspapers [announcing this week’s new initiative]."
THE LACK OF SUBSTANCE TO PRIME MINISTER OLMERT’S extended hand to the Palestinians does not, however, make it a harmless gesture, any more than the last 48 hours of fighting in Lebanon were harmless. Olmert’s signal to the Palestinians of his willingness to be very generous was coupled with Israel’s agreement to withdraw all its forces from the Gaza Strip and to accept a ceasefire. That ceasefire was just as promptly broken by the Palestinians. Though Kassam strikes on Sderot and the Western Negev are down from the 8-10 per day in the period leading up to the ceasefire, at least 15 Kassams fell in the first week of the supposed ceasefire. Prime Minister Olmert, however, ordered the IDF not to respond. The IDF was told to neither fire upon Kassam rocket crews on the way to launch missiles nor after such launches. In addition, Olmert extended the ceasefire to the West Bank, at least partially where the presence of IDF troops on the ground has dramatically reduced the number of successful terrorist operations since Operation Defensive Shield in 2002.
Though the Prime Minister was quoted as telling the cabinet that he expects the ceasefire to fall of its own accord due to competition between various Palestinian terrorist groups, he apparently feels that Israel will reap a diplomatic benefit from its passivity – the same calculation that led to the Gaza withdrawal.
Likud MK Professor Yuval Steinitz, however, was far less sanguine about the consequences of the ceasefire. He accused the Olmert government of not only tossing a lifeline to Hamas, but of handing it a major diplomatic victory. By offering to renew negotiations with a Palestinian "unity government," even though Hamas has explicitly rejected all the terms previously imposed by the international community – recognition of Israel’s right to exist, acceptance of all previous peace treaties between Israel and the Palestinian Authority – Israel has provided Hamas with de facto recognition. That will pave the way for the de jure recognition by the international community and the resumption of the vast international funding of the Palestinian Authority, including its security apparatuses, which often double as terrorist wings. Even after negotiations with the new unity government break down, as they inevitably will, said Steinitz, the international legitimacy granted Hamas will remain. (The immediate danger pointed out by Steinitz has been temporarily averted only due to the inability of Hamas and Fatah to agree upon a formula for a unity government to date.)
Steinitz shares the view of the intelligence and security communities that the Palestinians will use the current ceasefire as a means of arming themselves to inflict even more damage on Israel. The intelligence community is unanimous in its assessment that advanced armaments are pouring into Gaza through the Philadelphia Corridor, which is supposed to be guarded by Egypt.
When he was chairman of Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Steinitz was one of the premier skeptics of Egypt’s good intentions, and nothing since then has changed his views. The Egyptian strategy, he suggests, is to let the Palestinians and Israelis bleed one another to death. Allowing the Palestinians to bring in to Gaza ever more sophisticated and longer-range weaponry is part and parcel of that strategy. He notes that it would be relatively easy for the Egyptians to stop the smuggling via the Philadelphia Corridor by establishing check points along the few roads and paths leading from the Sinai into Rafah on the Egyptian side of the border.
Steinitz points to the alarming Egyptian military buildup – it has received more than 40 billion dollars in American military aid and much of America’s most advanced weaponry since Oslo – as evidence of its continued aggressive intent towards Israel. It makes no sense for a country that has no potential enemies and which is beset by overwhelming poverty to spend so much money on munitions unless it were still contemplating another war with Israel. As further proof of Egypt’s long-term strategic thinking, Steinitz points to its efforts to maintain Israel’s diplomatic isolation in the Arab world and the continuation of vicious anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda in Egypt’s state-controlled media and its schools and universities.
Rather than accepting a ceasefire, Steinitz argues, Israel should have treated the non-stop barrage of Kassams from Gaza as an act of war, and undertaken a massive land operation in Gaza aimed at extirpating the terrorist infrastructure, along the lines of Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in 2002. Instead Israel opted for a repeat of the failed strategy of Lebanon: pinpoint aerial strikes, aimless ground actions near the border; followed by a ceasefire.
Olmert’s peace gesture was mistimed for another reason as well. It plays into the notion that the road to an improved situation in Iraq runs through Israel. The recommendations of the Commission headed by James Baker, who once famously said, "Stick it to the Jews. They don’t vote for us anyway," (a somewhat sanitized version of his actual remark), are widely expected to echo the recent speech of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in which he argued that no improvement can be expected in Iraq without movement on the Palestinian issue, i.e., further Israeli concessions. Baker will call for seeking the assistance of Syria and Iran to quell the violence in Iraq, and the currency to be offered is Israeli concessions.
Adoption of such a strategy - rather than sending American troops into Syria and Iran to attack the training bases of the Iraqi insurgents that both countries host – would be to reveal America as harmless to its enemies and treacherous to its friends. By suggesting that the time might be ripe for movement on the Palestinian front, Olmert unwittingly adds to the momentum building for greater American pressure on Israel.
THE MOST CHARITABLE INTERPRETATION of Olmert’s speech is that he wishes to provide hope to a nation where hope is in short supply. That impulse has been at the root of every Israeli peace initiative from Oslo to the Gaza withdrawal.
Hillel Halkin, in a piece entitled "An Israel without Hope," in the New York Sun, captured the public mood: "Meanwhile the rockets keep falling from Gaza; every Israeli military action there further harms its standing in the world; Hamas slowly gains in its fight for international acceptance; radical Islam grows stronger nearly everywhere; the potential gains of last summers war in Lebanon have been squandered; Iran goes on building the bomb; and Israelis, for the first time in their history, see no conceivable light, not even an imaginary will-o’-the-wisp at the end of the tunnel." And the situation today, with Hizbullah on the verge of toppling the anti-Syrian government in Lebanon, is even graver than when Halkin wrote those words three weeks ago.
But we are long past the point where hope can come from gestures that all Israelis recognize as hollow from the get-go, and which we all know are driven more by political expediency than any serious intent. The only course for Israeli leaders at this point in time is to honestly provide the people with a true appraisal of their situation, and then convince them, as Churchill did in his time, that they will prevail over the forces arrayed against them if they but believe in the justice of their cause and have the will to see it through.