Israelis have a word for it: “hasbara”. It is often misleadingly translated as “advocacy for Israel”. But what the word signifies more deeply for Israel’s supporters is the duty, when the truth would be damaging, to dissemble or to disseminate misinformation to protect the interests of Israel as a Jewish state — that is, a state with an unassailable Jewish majority.
If hasbara is expected of the lowliest members of Israel’s international fan club, it is a duty of the first order for the country’s prime minister. Which is why no one should be surprised that Ehud Olmert’s speech to the US Congress last week was an unpalatable stew of untruths, distortions and double-speak. Washington’s credulous politicians, of course, lapped it up, bobbing up and down as they gave the Israeli prime minister a series of standing ovations.
Olmert’s goal was to prepare the way for Washington’s acceptance of his “convergence” plan, the evacuation of a few tens of thousands of Jewish settlers from small and remote colonies in the West Bank while the overwhelming majority, at least 350,000, stay firmly in place nearby in their illegal settlement “blocs” protected by a wall designed to annex Palestinian land.
For the Washington crowd, Olmert renamed the plan a “realignment”, presumably to suggest that with full US backing and financing of the $10 billion price tag it might be as beneficial, and simple, as getting your tyres fixed at the local garage.
Possibly for the same reason — a desire for US funding — Olmert also wanted to suggest that he and his country are preparing to break with the past in the interests of peace: dividing the land, setting final borders between Israel and its neighbour, and by extension helping to create a Palestinian state. Those were the “bold ideas” that so impressed President Bush.
However, Olmert’s plan is daring only its bare-faced cheek. Certainly it won’t meet the minimal requirements of international law or UN resolutions demanding Israel withdraw to its pre-1967 border, the Green Line.
Instead, under convergence, the bulk of Israel’s settlements will not be dismantled (worse, they will be “consolidated” to house the evacuees and a new generation of settlers); the Palestinians will not be offered a viable state (they will have control over a series of ghettoes separated by the settlement blocs); and their lives will continue to be dependent on the Israeli army’s goodwill (something the Palestinians in Gaza are already learning to their cost). In other words, the occupation will metamorphose but it will still be an occupation.
But while Olmert used his ideas of convergence to dress up Palestinian subjugation in new clothes, when it came to the rhetoric needed to win over his Washington audience he stuck firmly with formulas tried and tested by his predecessor.
Chief among Olmert’s priorities is establishing common cause with the US administration over Iran. Applauding Bush’s bravery in standing up to the global terror threat posed by Iran’s “imminent” development of a nuclear capability, Olmert hinted, as he has been doing regularly in the Hebrew media, that there is direct line that passes between Tehran and the Hamas activists and legislators of Gaza and the West Bank.
Describing the Hamas government as committed to “the glorification of terror”, Olmert concluded: “We will NOT yield to terror … we will NOT surrender to terror … and we WILL WIN the war on terror.”
Where have we heard this kind of talk before? In December 2001, Sharon also drew a comparison between Washington’s fight against terror and Israel’s in the hope of winning Bush’s blessing for the emasculation of the then Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority.
Sharon sought to persuade the US administration that its own war, then directed against al-Qaeda and Afghanistan, was identical to his war against Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. In a televised address to the nation, Sharon noted: “Just as the United States is conducting its war against international terror, using all its might against terror, so will we."
And to drive home the point that international terror included the Palestinian leader, Sharon continued: “Arafat has made his strategic choices: a strategy of terrorism. In choosing to try and win political accomplishments through murder and in choosing to allow the ruthless killing of innocent civilians, Arafat has chosen the path of terrorism.”
Soon Arafat was holed up in his compound in Ramallah by Israeli tanks and snipers, and became the “irrelevant” leader Sharon promised to make him. As Bush turned a blind eye, Israeli armour rolled into the cities of the West Bank determined to destroy the infrastructure of normal Palestinian life as much as any “infrastructure of terror”.
Having discredited Fatah among ordinary Palestinians for its inability to withstand these humiliating Israeli assaults, Sharon doubtless laid the path for Hamas’ triumph in the elections earlier this year.
And so history repeats itself. Now Olmert wants to persuade Washington that the newly elected leaders of the Palestinians — the Hamas government — are as tainted by “international terror” as the old ones. It’s not about resisting the occupation, but a plot against the West. Arafat, Hamas, the ayatollahs, al-Qaeda — it makes no odds.
According to Olmert, the solution now as then is to isolate and starve the Palestinian leadership of funds and international standing until it is made irrelevant again. Irrelevant to what? To whatever “process” Israel and the Americans want to impose on the Palestinians.
There is another obvious similarity with the previous era. Notoriously, Sharon used to insist on “seven days of quiet” before he would negotiate with Arafat — a condition that the Palestinians never managed to satisfy even when there were weeks of quiet.
This was the start of Israel abandoning any pretence of negotiating with the Palestinians as required by the Oslo accords. It was the birth of unilateralism as an overt policy, and it has left us with twin legacies: a wall that is carving up the West Bank into a series of prisons, and a disengagement that has removed Gaza’s prison guards only so that they can be allowed to fire indiscriminately into the cells from the perimeter wall.
Olmert, despite his protestations that he is “holding out the hand of peace to the Palestinians”, is as committed as Sharon to unilateralism. His version of seven days of quiet is the demand for the Palestinians to recognise “Israel’s right to exist”, a nonsensical diktat both in international law and by virtue of Israel’s continuing refusal to recognise Palestinian rights to nationhood.
Whatever promises Olmert makes to Bush about working strenuously to meet with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, no one in Israel is in any doubt that Olmert is going it alone. The prime minister is not debating whether to proceed bilaterally or unilaterally; he knows Israel will do what it wants, when it wants, and solely for its own benefit.
“The goal,” said Olmert, “is to break the chains that have tangled our two peoples in unrelenting violence for far too many generations. With our futures unbound, peace and stability might finally find its way to the doorsteps of this troubled region.”
His ambition to disentangle two peoples sounds lofty — until one understands what the Israeli centre-left really means when it talks this way. Olmert is echoing views that have dominated the mainstream in Israel for most of the intifada.
Take one example: that of A B Yehoshua, Israel’s foremost novelist and a leader of the peace camp. Back in March 2004 he offered his own reasons for supporting an Olmert-style unilateralism — disengagement from Gaza and annexation of the the main West Bank settlements — before the programme even existed. What was Yehoshua’s vision of “peace and stability” after convergence?
“After we remove the [isolated] settlements and after we stop being an occupation army, all the rules of war will be different. We will exercise our full force. We will not have to run around looking for this terrorist or that instigator — we will make use of force against an entire population. We will use total force. Because from the minute we withdraw I don’t want to know their names. I don’t want any personal relations with them. I am no longer in a situation of occupation and policing and B’Tselem [the Israeli human rights organization]. Instead, I will be standing opposite them in a position of nation versus nation. State versus state.”
Though he could not say it to Congress, this is the true goal of Olmert’s unilateralism. This is why he broke with all Israeli practice by upgrading Mahmoud Abbas from the “Palestinian chairman” to the “President of the Palestinian Authority”. If Israel is facing another state (even if it is one imposed unilaterally, without an army or control of its borders) then Israel will be free to use “total force” to suppress any resistance to its continuing occupation. More than that, it will have the world’s sanction.
To win the backing of the Bush administration, Olmert will need to compromise — not on his convergence plan but on the way he sells it to Washington. The White House demands that its own peace initiative, the dog-eared Road Map, still be the route followed by both sides. Olmert will be happy to continue paying lip service to the Road Map, as he did in his speech, even as he ignores it.
And that is because of yet another legacy from Sharon’s time. The former prime minister succeeded in making dismantlement of the West Bank “outposts” — remote settlements officially considered rogue, even though the government finances them and the army protects them — the benchmark for judging whether Israel is complying with the Road Map.
To implement the convergence, Olmert will need to dismantle these 100 or so outposts — most of them a handful of caravans on a hilltop — and a few equally isolated “approved” settlements. It should not tax Israel too much to persuade Bush that it is fulfilling its side of the deal. In return, the Palestinians will be expected to renounce violence, even as the occupation continues, and recognise Israel, even though the new “borders” of the Jewish state will be eating up more of the little land that is left them.
If the Palestinians refuse to do so — as they surely must if they are to keep alive hopes of real statehood — then, according to Olmert, Israel “will not give a terrorist regime a veto over progress”. Israel will have the pretext and sanction it needs for completing the unilateral policies it is already implementing.
Olmert offered one piece of advice at the end of his speech he should take note of himself. “Strength, without courage, will only lead to brutality.” It could serve as the epitaph for Israel’s unilateralists.