George Orwell taught us that the words used by political leaders may not mean what the same words mean in conventional discourse, what they mean according to our dictionaries. (So did Lewis Carroll.) Accordingly, it is worth noting a potential transformation in Israel — where three phrases, it seems, have begun overnight to mean just what they are supposed to mean.
The first: “illegal,” as in “illegal outposts.” Such outposts have been around for years, so long that the word “illegal” has been emptied of all meaning, as if it is just another descriptive. There are agricultural settlements, there are suburban settlements, there are illegal outposts and so forth.
Now comes the acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and proposes to remove such outposts, in order to establish the rule of law. “The rule of law,” the second of the three phrases, now comes to mean what it was intended to mean: a way of life for a nation, and not merely an abstract phrase honored in the breach.
About the third restoration of meaning, there is some ambiguity. I refer to “acting prime minister,” which conventionally means a prime minister who is taking the place, temporarily, of the real prime minister — exactly the case in Israel. Israel does not have a “vice prime minister” in the American sense, someone who automatically inherits the office on the death or permanent incapacitation of the incumbent leader. Olmert will remain the acting prime minister until the March elections.
But the word “acting” has, of course, another meaning. It means not only someone who is filling in for someone else; it also means someone who is doing, who is taking action. In its first meaning, as an adjective, Webster says that acting means holding a temporary rank or position, performing services temporarily. But as a verb, it means to take action.
Ehud Olmert, then, is not only the acting prime minister; he also may be an acting prime minister — that is, a prime minister who acts — or, more precisely, who has indicated his intention to act, to establish the rule of law by removing illegal outposts. One day last week, Olmert instructed the security forces to get ready to remove as many as 30 of the outposts. He put the matter squarely in the context of support for the rule of law. “This reality of disruptions of order and undermining the rule of law could trickle in from Judea and Samaria into the Green Line. We’re fighting for the rule of law, and it’s an essential objective,” the acting prime minister said. And his colleagues — most notably, the chief of staff and the foreign minister — picked up the same theme. Justice and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni: “This is a battle over sovereignty in the West Bank. It is an ideological dispute over the country’s right to enforce its laws.”
But do not break out the champagne (or the sacramental wine) just yet.
Just a day later, the 30 outposts had become 20, and Olmert’s office said he was referring to the 20 illegal outposts that Israel had promised the United States it would evacuate. Since that statement, fidelity to Israel’s promise to America has overshadowed the rule of law as the principal stated motive for the intended dismantling of the outposts. Whether this a genuine distinction or a distinction without a difference remains to be seen — as, indeed, does the implementation of the bold proposal. The opposition surely will be fierce, at a level only hinted at by the Gaza settlers before their eviction. And even a fully endowed Olmert, an actual rather than an acting prime minister — yet necessarily one far less able to pound the table when facing the top people in the defense establishment — would be sorely tempted to dilatory compromise. Perhaps that is why the most recent statements by both Olmert and Livni have denied that Israel has any intention of unilateral moves, have wrapped themselves in the road map, which in its first phase lays most of its demands on the Palestinians. And at a press conference on January 17, Olmert evaded reporters’ questions as to whether, if elected, he would carry out further unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank. So it may well be that his earlier apparent resolve already has fizzled.
Olmert is where he is today as a result of a series of events he neither could have planned nor predicted. It is quite remarkable — and praiseworthy — that he is not acting like an acting prime minister. He has assumed very substantial authority, and has done so, by and large, quite gracefully. Though cut from an entirely different cloth from that of Ariel Sharon, he shares with Sharon a conviction that, we’re told, prompted Sharon’s insistence on withdrawal from Gaza — namely, that the preservation of a Jewish majority in Israel is Israel’s highest priority, the condition precedent to the survival of the Zionist dream. Zionists may have fantasized about a Greater Israel, but if and as that fantasy bumps into the need to preserve Israel as a Jewish state, then farewell to the fantasy. It is said, credibly, that Olmert pressed Sharon on exactly this point. There is little doubt that this is not merely Olmert’s perception, but also his core strategic foundation conviction — a conviction, say the polls, shared by most Israelis. Comes the question: Does Olmert have the courage of his conviction?
The torch of leadership in Israel is about to be passed. It remains to be seen whether, in the hands of a new generation, that torch will lead Israel’s way out of the long dusk of a conflict that has seemed intractable. So far, just weeks into the transition, the only answer is: Maybe.