Olmert Speaks the Truth, 29 Months Too Late

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published October 08, 2008, issue of October 17, 2008.
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Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said only one wildly wrong thing in his September 29 interview with Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest-circulation newspaper: “The time has come to say these things.” Twenty-nine months after becoming Israel’s prime minister, quite literally on his way out the door — possibly to indictment on charges of corruption — now the time has come?

Yet “these things” to which Olmert was referring are, in fact, not only the right things but for all practical purposes the only things that really matter. When it comes to the safety and welfare of the Jewish state, there is one issue, just one, that rises above all others — and soon it will be too late to deal with that issue.

I am referring, of course, to a two-state solution.

Not very long ago, the near-universal wisdom was that no matter how long delayed, the ultimate resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. That wisdom was at the heart of American diplomacy in the region, it was shared fully by the European Union, it was the formal view of Israeli governments (and people) and it became the formal policy of the Palestinian Authority. The terrible frustrations, over the years, were that diplomacy and negotiations did not seem to be advancing the two-state prospect, that the attention of the parties was easily diverted, that in the meantime new “facts on the ground” were rendering the prospect more and more unlikely.

Now, a rising chorus proclaims the near-death of a two-state solution. Whether such warnings are part of a bluff intended to get the Israelis to move more resolutely toward two states or, instead, are meant finally to express the actual preference of those who make them, does not matter all that much. As Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University and a longtime moderate, put it in a an essay in the September 29 issue of Newsweek, one group “believes that one-state talk might help knock some sense into the heads of Israeli decision-makers,” while the other “prefers a one-state solution because it would create a government they would eventually control as a demographic majority.” Nusseibeh himself, to his credit, recognizes that “the Israelis will never agree to anything” other than two states, and that while “[m]any Palestinians think a single state might be ideal — since it would involve the defeat of the Zionist project and its replacement by a binational country that would eventually be ruled by its Arab majority … many ships have been wrecked on such rocks before. And the one state likely to emerge from a cataclysmic conflict would likely to be anything but ideal.”

Nusseibeh is hardly the only prominent Palestinian to engage in stark speculation. Writing in The Wall Street Journal recently, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently predicted that “the parameters of the debate are apt to shift dramatically” if the sides don’t reach a deal for two states soon. “Israel’s continued settlement expansion and land confiscation in the West Bank makes physical separation of our two peoples increasingly impossible,” he wrote. And so also a growing number of others.

And who can blame the gloomy prognosticators, when Israel continues to expand rather than contract its presence in the West Bank and especially in East Jerusalem, where, in the last 15 years, Israel has built 13 new neighborhoods, home to some 250,000 Jews? And who can blame them when Giora Eiland, a reserve major-general and former head of Israel’s National Security Council, argues that “the current formulation of the two-state solution is untenable.” Speaking at a Washington Institute for Near East Policy conference in September, Eiland observed that the maximum that Israel is politically able to give is less than the minimum Palestinians are politically able to accept. His proposal? That Jordan take over security control for the West Bank, never mind that there is doubtless an Arabic equivalent to the Yiddish aphorism, “With a healthy head you shouldn’t crawl into a sick bed.”

So Ehud Olmert has now come around, has accepted the perspective of Peace Now: Anything other than a two-state solution signals the end of the Jewish state. Nor is his a death-bed conversion. More than a year ago, he said, publicly, that “the state of Israel is finished” unless each side gets a state of its own. And just weeks ago, he spoke bluntly to his Cabinet, telling them that Israel “has no choice but to abandon the lands it captured during the 1967 war. Forty years after the Six Day War, the international community’s willingness to accept Israel as a binational state [i.e., a one-state solution] is growing,” he said. “Some day, sooner than we think, we will long for the solutions that some of us reject today.”

In his Yediot interview, he goes even further: “We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the meaning of which is that in practice we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories. We will leave a percentage of these territories in our hands, but will have to give the Palestinians a similar percentage, because without that there will be no peace.”

It is possible to believe that but for the need to keep his governing coalition alive, Olmert would have said these things back when they might have mattered more. It is reasonable to believe that a truth spoken later is better than a truth spoken never. It is plausible to suppose that had it not been for the corruption charges that drove Olmert from office, he’d finally have mustered the courage — as prime minister — to do what he finally did, to tell it like it is. Alas, it is neither possible nor reasonable nor even plausible to believe that anyone — whether Israeli or Palestinian — paid much attention to Olmert’s valedictory interview.

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