Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has never been a shrinking violet. And on Monday, he made clear that he has absolutely no intention of leaving the public stage quietly.
In a Rosh Hashana interview with Yediot Aharonot, Olmert admitted for the first time that he is negotiating deals with Syria and the Fatah-led faction of the Palestinian Authority committing Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, from dozens of neighborhoods in Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, as well as from all or nearly all of Judea and Samaria.
Olmert noted that he is the first prime minister to state explicitly that he supports Israel's geographical contraction to the 1949 armistice lines. Indeed, none of his predecessors were ever so explicit. And his likely successor in office – Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni – loses her voice every time she is asked whether she believes that Israel should withdraw from Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and all of Judea and Samaria.
Olmert's willingness to spell out the expanse of the territorial handovers he supports makes him unique among Israel's premiers. But his stated view that Israel has no choice other than to withdraw from almost all the lands it took control of during the Six Day War has been the common view of every Israeli prime minister except Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu since 1993. Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon all signaled their support for this view. Indeed, all of their central policies while in office were predicated on it.
THE QUESTION is, why has this been the case? Why is it that for the past 15 years, at a certain point in their tenures every prime minister aside from Netanyahu has come to the conclusion that Israel must turn over its land to those sworn to its destruction?
Like Rabin, Peres, Barak and Sharon before him, Olmert makes no rational argument for withdrawal. He simply asserts it. And like his predecessors, Olmert uses three rhetorical tricks to support his assertion. First, he notes the uniqueness of his position as prime minister. Olmert knows Israel must surrender its land simply because he is prime minister. Sharon expressed this most clearly when he intoned, "What you see from here, you don't see from there."
Second, Olmert and his predecessors – and his likely successor Livni – all claim that "everybody knows" that Israel must withdraw. That is, you have to be completely out of your mind not to agree with me because every right-minded person agrees with me.
Olmert made this intellectually intimidating point explicitly on Monday in reference to the Golan Heights when he said, "I want to see if there is one person in the State of Israel who believes that it is possible to make peace with Syria without conceding anything on the Golan Heights."
Finally, Olmert and his predecessors – and his likely successor – argue that it is inevitable that Israel withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines. And since it is inevitable, it might as well be done right now. As Olmert said – again of the Golan Heights, – "I put it to you, say in the next year or two a regional war erupts and we find ourselves in a military confrontation with Syria… I ask myself, what happens after we beat them? First of all we will pay a price [for victory] and it will be painful. And after we pay what we pay, what will we say to them? 'Let's talk.' And what will the Syrians say? 'Let's talk about the Golan.'"
The assertion that a prime minister knows more than regular people is true. But no secret information in the world counterbalances empirical evidence that is open for all to see. While it may or may not be true that Israel can live at peace with the Palestinians and Syrians without returning to the 1949 armistice lines, it is manifestly true that neither the Syrians nor the Palestinians are interested in living at peace with Israel. So while an interesting theoretical question, the issue of whether Israel needs to give up land for peace is completely irrelevant today.
Both the Syrians and the Palestinians know that Olmert – like his predecessors since Rabin – is willing to go back to the 1949 armistice lines in exchange for peace. And operating on this knowledge, over the past 15 years, both societies have gravitated into the Iranian axis.
Today, at the same time as Syrian President Bashar Assad holds indirect talks about an Israeli surrender of the Golan Heights, he has amassed 25,000 soldiers on his border with northern Lebanon. He is rebuilding his nuclear program with Iranian money and North Korean scientists. He has pledged to the Iranians that he will continue arming Hizbullah and Hamas and that his negotiations with Olmert will be coordinated ahead of time with Iran.
As for the Palestinians, at every stage of their relationship with Israel for the past 15 years, every one of their leaders – from Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad alike – has been categorical in his refusal to accept Israel's right to exist. Moreover, insofar as Fatah is concerned, the violent conflict with Israel was supposed to have ended in 1993. In 1993, Yasser Arafat pledged that from then on, all of the Palestinians' issues with Israel would be resolved through negotiations and that terror would be combated, not fostered.
While calling for immediate territorial surrenders to enemies uninterested in peace, Olmert – like his predecessors – also claims that the risk involved in surrendering the Golan Heights, Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem is minimal because Israel is so strong. As Olmert put it, "We are stronger than they are. I tell you, Israel is the strongest country in the Middle East. We can handle all our enemies and we can handle all our enemies together and win."
Yet Olmert – like his predecessors – fails to acknowledge that if we give up the lands we took control over in 1967 we will be much weaker. And our ability to deter our enemies from joining together to attack us will be severely curtailed. He ignores the fact that it was Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 that inspired the Palestinians to attack us in September 2000. He ignores the fact that Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 inspired Hizbullah to attack us in 2006. And he ignores the fact that Israel's failure to defeat Hizbullah in 2006 inspired Hamas to take control of Gaza in 2007. And in all of this, he ignores the fact that Hamas, Hizbullah and Syria are controlled by Iran.
AS FOR Iran, when the issue of Teheran's nuclear weapons program comes up, the leader who says we can beat all our enemies at once is suddenly singing another tune. Israel, "the strongest country in the Middle East," is crazy if it thinks it can defend itself against its most formidable foe.
In Olmert's view, "Part of our exaggeration of our power and our lack of any sense of proportion is found in the statements being made here about Iran… The assumption that if America, Russia and China and Britain and Germany don't know how to handle the Iranians that we the Israelis do know – this is an example of a loss of proportions."
So Olmert, like Sharon, Barak, Peres and Rabin before him, has made the determination that the only strategy that Israel can follow is one of utter defeatism and surrender. And he – like they before him – has made this strategic calculation in the face of empirical evidence that shows that whatever the costs of retaining the status quo – or of actually defeating our enemies – the cost of surrender and defeatism is surrender and defeat. That is, the cost to the country of following their lead to surrender is higher than the cost of not surrendering or subcontracting our survival to outside powers.
SO IF the view that Israel's only option is surrender has no basis in empirical evidence, what accounts for Olmert's baseless assertions?
The answer, unfortunately, is clear. Quite simply, life is easier for premiers, and much better for former premiers on the Left than
on the Right.
As Olmert considers his options going forward, he knows two things. First, he knows that the international lecture circuit is eminently more generous to former Israeli prime ministers who speak ill of Israel than it is for former premiers who defend Israel. Second, he knows that if he ever hopes to return to politics, he will only be able to return as the head of the Left. His explicit statements on the need for Israeli capitulation will serve him well in both ventures.
Then there is the issue of Olmert's legal woes. While Olmert's policy decisions are the same as all of his predecessors, the circumstances in which he is leaving office are analogous only to those that confronted Ehud Barak.
Like Olmert, Barak left office under a cloud of criminal probes. And in his final months in office, he cast all remaining vestiges of strategic rationality to the seven winds in his desperate negotiations with Arafat. Despite the fact that his government had already collapsed, neither the Supreme Court nor the Attorney-General's Office told him he lacked the legal right to concede Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem. And in recognition of his embrace of post-Zionism, once Barak was out of office, all the criminal probes against him were quietly closed.
Like Barak, Olmert probably won't be around long enough to conclude the surrenders he strives for. But that doesn't mean that his statements are not dangerous for the country.
Far-left politicians and their counterparts in the media claim that Olmert is brave to speak as openly as he has. And this is true. It does take some bravery to stick your finger in the eye of the general public – which doesn't support your views.
Olmert's statements and actions, which contradict the pledges he made to voters in 2006, are a slap in the face of the Israeli electorate. Unfortunately, the public has grown all too used to such blows. Rabin, Barak and Sharon were all elected on the basis of hawkish platforms. And they all abandoned their platforms after they were elected. This constant deceit has made the public cynical and engendered a sense of powerlessness among Israeli citizens. This sense is merely exacerbated by the sight of Livni working madly to avoid standing for election by attempting to form a new government. This is all the more true given that she rests her claim to governing legitimacy on her narrow victory in a tiny primary race riven by allegations of corruption.
So by ignoring the basic reality of Israel's strategic challenges and speaking of irrelevant concessions to imaginary peace partners while demonstrating his abject contempt for the public, Olmert is causing us great harm. He is reinforcing our belief that we have no option other than deceitful leaders who ignore our rights and reality. And this is a dangerous delusion. Because the truth is that not all of Israel's leaders are defeatists. There are still leaders who put the country first. They are simply not friends of Olmert's.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.