JERUSALEM — Malcolm Hoenlein is accustomed to being updated by Israeli officials about “the situation,” but he has never been as close to it as he was this week.
Hoenlein, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, personally witnessed his first suicide bombing up close, and was visibly shaken describing it an hour later.
“It really puts a reality to all that we have been learning about and all that we have heard,” said Hoenlein. “As we were standing there, I pointed out that at our feet were pieces of body, of flesh. We saw some of the pellets and some of the shrapnel that was in the bomb, and you know what devastation that does to the bodies of people who were in such close proximity. It is so seared in your memory, I can say I will never forget that scene.”
The Presidents’ Conference was on its annual leadership mission for briefings by Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and a handful of Cabinet ministers. While being addressed by Chief of Staff Lt.-General Moshe Ya’alon on Sunday morning, word came in that there had been a bus bombing not 150 yards from the hotel.
Hoenlein and members of the conference rushed down the street to observe first-hand the carnage, in which eight people were killed and more than 60 wounded. While members of Zaka, a volunteer organization that attends to disaster victims, picked through the wreckage inside the bus looking for pieces of flesh and blood to bury, others outside tore off white body bags from a plastic roll to place over six bodies lined up on stretchers along the sidewalk.
Hoenlein said pictures of such scenes don’t adequately convey the totality of a terrorist bus bombing. “Ein doma reiya lishmiya,” he said. “There is no comparison between hearing it and being a distant observer, to being so close to it, as it really brings home the war on terrorism.”
The bombing took place a day before the International Court of Justice began hearings on Israel’s security fence. That subject, together with Sharon’s plan for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, was the main topic addressed by most of the speakers at the Presidents’ Conference.
Minister of Industry and Trade and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a longtime hawk, surprised some of the delegates with his forthright explanation of why Israel must pull out of Gaza.
The status quo, Olmert said, helps Israel neither as a preventative measure against suicide attacks nor in its standing in the international community, even while that community has come to understand “that the Palestinians are not delivering, that they are not in a position to enter into a serious and meaningful process.”
The idea of a pullout from Gaza frightens the Palestinians, he said, because “if we do not make a comprehensive permanent agreement that will satisfy them altogether, they’d rather we be stuck where we are today, because [it] serves them better than any other situation. They want us to be stuck in Gaza and the territories and have these pictures and have these confrontations and occasionally kill innocent civilians, because they know how to manipulate this to serve their purpose, to increase the pressure on Israel and to make Israel pay a lot more.”
While the security fence will not eliminate terror, he said, it will reduce it to a minimum, and a withdrawal from Gaza will fundamentally change the nature of the conflict.
“Once the majority of Palestinians will not be under the day-to-day control of the Israeli military, this conflict will not be as sexy as it is today to the international press,” Olmert said. “It will cease to be front-page everywhere. There will be no reason for it to be front-page everywhere. There will not be soldiers and tanks and military confronting civilian populations.”
Likud lawmaker Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the foreign affairs and defense committee, said that while a pullout from Gaza would be “difficult, complicated and dangerous,” he might support it if “it will enable us to strengthen our position vis-à-vis the Palestinians in a few years time, and if it will be clear that this is not the beginning of a slippery slope.”
Steinitz said that if the end result of the “road map” peace plan is a transitional Palestinian state led by an unreliable Palestinian leadership, then “it might be a good idea to limit it to Gaza first for a few years, and then to say, if after a few years and after [Yasser] Arafat we see that in Gaza something positive has developed, and the direction is peaceful coexistence, we can resume negotiations after Arafat with another reliable and anti-terrorist leadership.”