Today we spent the entire day at the Knesset, and an incredible day it was. We met with a number of prominent MKs, including opposition leader Bibi Netanyahu and ended up having a nearly one hour meeting with Prime Minister Olmert himself.
As it turned out, this was a politically eventful and important day in Israel. As had been rumored for the past few weeks, MK Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of the ultra-nationalist Beitenu party announced this morning that his party was pulling out of the government’s coalition, taking eleven seats with him. And as if this wasn’t enough for a Prime Minister who is pursing a delicate new peace process, Olmert is nervously awaiting the release of the second phase of the Winograd Report, which is expected to come down hard upon him for his handling of the 2006 Lebanon war and quite possibility force his resignation.
In a sense, this is the place where peace and politics collide. It is an interesting moral/political question to ponder: assuming Winograd confirms all predictions, should we still support Olmert, even while agreeing that he committed fatal, unforgivable errors during the Lebanon war? After all, if Olmert is forced to resign, and the Knesset opts for new elections, polls say that Likud’s Bibi Netanyahu will be the clear winner, which would most certainly mean the end of the peace process as we know it.
During our visit to the Knesset we met first with several prominent members of Meretz (which will soon be holding its own elections to replace outgoing chairman Yossi Beilin). Beilin told us that he believes for the sake of the peace process, Meretz should support Olmert no matter what. We also spoke with Haim Oron and Zehava Galon, both of whom are running for the new chair position. While Oron counseled to adopt a wait and see attitude, Galon was unequivocal in her feelings that if the report is as critical as expected, it would be morally unacceptable for him to remain Prime Minister. She, as others, felt the best case scenario would be to replace Olmert from within the Kadima party, presumably by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
In addition to these issues, Meretz MK Abu Vilan talked to us extensively about the “One Home” bill that he and others are hoping to get passed through Knesset. This bill would allocate significant funds (2-2.5 billion dollars) to compensate residents from 74 settlements outside the separation barrier for resettlement inside the Green Line – if they come forward now. The obvious idea behind this effort would be to mitigate the upheaval that would inevitably ensue from a forced evacuation by the Israeli military in the eventuality that the West Bank becomes part of a new Palestinian state. Vilan told us that this bill currently has the support of key MKs, and he was hopeful that he could move it through the complicated Knesset process for eventual passage.
After hearing from two MK’s from the Labor party – Minister of Education Yuli Tamir and Collette Avital – we met with the Prime Minister. In many ways Olmert was the consummate master of politics: saying all of the right things, alternately candid and guarded when he felt the occasions warranted.
In his opening comments, Olmert addressed the crisis precipitated by Lieberman’s exit from the coalition. While expressing regret he said that he was well aware the Lieberman rejected his government’s efforts in the peace process – and on this count he said was firm: he would under no circumstances go back on his policy and commitments in pursing a two-state solution for Israel/Palestine.
He also addressed Bush’s recent visit, rejecting the popular notion that Bush was making a desperate effort in the final year of his presidency. Olmert said that in the volatile Middle East, “one year is like a lifetime.” He believed that the process initiated by Bush had a real chance, even if an agreement does not emerge in 2008. Olmert stressed his firm support of a two-state solution, underlining the commitments he made at Annapolis and saying how important it was that his intentions were broadcast live around the world.
Based on our experiences of the past few days, we were ready with our first question: why, if he was so serious about the peace process, were things not only not improving on the ground for Palestinians, but were actually going backwards?
Indeed, we have heard repeatedly during our trip that conditions have actually gotten worse in the West Bank in the two months since Annapolis. Not only have outposts not been dismantled and settlements frozen, but in the case of Har Homa (as I wrote in an earlier post) tenders on new construction have actually been issued by the government. Moreover, the situation at checkpoints has not eased one iota – if anything they have only tightened down even further. Why, we asked, has Olmert not instituted any confidence building measures in order to demonstrate his articulated commitment to the peace process?
Olmert responded in a… well… in a very political manner. He said that his government was in fact working with the Palestinians to institute confidence building measures, but he was not at liberty to make them public yet. At the same time, however, he claimed that he was in something of a political Catch-22. Imagine, he asked, if he closed a checkpoint and it turned out that a suicide bomber was able to make it through and commit a terrorist attack inside Israel. In such a case, he said, the entire peace process would be over. As he put it, things were in such a delicate situation, that “one failure would be one failure too many.” (Though we didn’t have the time to engage on this issue more thoroughly, I think that one could make an even more compelling case that if the Prime Minister makes promises, then fails to back them up with some semblance of change in the daily life of Palestinians, the entire peace process would run an even greater risk of being dead straight out of the starting gate.)
Olmert is a fascinating political animal: I think the jury is out on whether or not he can truly deliver the goods. He is currently fighting for his political life – but at the same time, he is the one to whom this peace process has been entrusted. I think on some level it would be a gamble at this point to hand this process to another leader from his party – and there is no doubt whatsoever that if Bibi becomes Prime Minister in new elections, then the peace process will be dead in its tracks – probably forever.
Speaking of Bibi, during his meeting with us I can only say that the arguments he used to dismiss the peace process were largely the same tired arguments he has been using for decades. Of course, everyone wants peace, Bibi said, but the peace process has only brought Israel the opposite of peace. There currently are Islamists in Gaza and Lebanon, and Israel is being rocketed from the north and the south. The reason, he says, is clear: the Palestinians don’t want a two-state solution – they want to liberate all of Palestine.
As Bibi simply put it, Israel’s past and current efforts at making peace are failures because there has never been a partner in peace on the other side – and the Palestinians have never produced a leader brave enough to make peace. President Abbas is not a true partner because he is simply too weak. He cannot possibly deliver the minimum that Israel would require for true peace and security.
Where does that leave us? Bibi suggested that Israel has been going at it all wrong. They should not try to impose a solution from the “top down,” but rather from the “bottom up.” By that he meant Israel should help the Palestinians build economic opportunity by creating businesses along the “seam line” (which we could only assume meant the separation barrier.) This, he explained, would eventually lead to stability and moderation for the Palestinians and security for Israel.
Of course, it would not be in Israel’s best interest to maintain permanent sovereignty over the territories – rather they should create self-government in “local Palestinian centers” (by which we could only assume he meant Bantustans.) Of course, this did not include Jerusalem, which should always remain under Israeli sovereignty. He also believed that Israel should maintain security buffer zones in the Jordan valley since these were unpopulated areas and of no use to the Palestinians.
Bibi’s most jaw dropping suggestion came on the issue of demographics. He considered this only to be an issue inside Israel, since Israel did not have an interest in permanent sovereignty over the territories. As for the rising Arab birthrate inside the Green Line, he explained that this was already being controlled by his changing of child subsidy laws during his administration. (???)
Bibi’s presentation to us was, for lack of a better word, chilling. For me, the most offensive part of his vision was his deeply patronizing vision of Palestinians: essentially painting them all as inbred enemies of Israel who simply needed to be brought along in order to live in peace with the Jews. No recognition of the diverse nature of Palestinian society, let alone appreciation for the fact that they might have national aspirations of their own. The bottom line is clear: a Netanyahu electoral victory would be the permanent death knell for the peace process…
OK, I can’t possibly end on this dark note. This evening after dinner, we heard from two of my personal heroes: Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad of the Bereaved Parents Circle – the wonderful coexistence group that promotes Israeli/Palestinian reconciliation and non-violence. I have already written extensively about them on this blog so I won’t say more except to say you should know about them and support their efforts.
Tomorrow we travel to Ramallah to meet with members of the Palestinian Authority, including Prime Minister Salaam Fayed. Should be another long post – stay tuned…