Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Olmert's bold step

Annapolis: By recognising the pain and suffering of Palestinians, Israel's prime minister showed his strength

Jonathan Freedland - Guardian America (CiF)

Ehud OlmertIt's not news that the key players at the Middle East peace talks in Annapolis are three men united by weakness. George Bush is in his last year with opinion poll ratings somewhere around his ankles, Ehud Olmert's numbers are not much better while Mahmoud Abbas is a president who rules only half his people. That said, strength and weakness are relative qualities - some are weaker than others.

The evidence for that came in the contrast in the speeches delivered by the two antagonists. Ehud Olmert included a remarkable passage [edit: full transcript of Olmert's speech from JPost] about Palestinian suffering: "For dozens of years, many Palestinians have been living in camps, disconnected from the environment in which they grew, wallowing in poverty, neglect, alienation, bitterness and a deep, unrelenting sense of deprivation. I know that this pain and deprivation is one of the deepest foundations which fomented the ethos of hatred towards us."

No Israeli prime minister has ever spoken of the Palestinian refugee experience in such terms before. Golda Meir denied there was even a Palestinian people. But now Olmert has come close to recognising the experience that lies at the heart of Palestinian national identity. To speak of Palestinian refugees "disconnected from the environment in which they grew" is to acknowledge that their roots lie elsewhere - in lands from which they were dispossessed and which are now Israel.

This may sound like a statement of the obvious to the rest of the world, but for an Israeli leader to say as much is significant. It marks a step away from the denial of historic reality which has for so long been a feature of official Israeli discourse.

Moreover, by conceding that "this pain and deprivation" has "fomented" hatred of Israel, Olmert has broken from the usual narrative of the right. The traditional rightist position is that Palestinians hate Israel out of some innate, implacable perhaps even racist loathing: to suggest otherwise is to submit to pinko, European "root cause-ism". But here is Israel's own prime minister saying that if Palestinians hate Israel, they have a reason - and, by implication, a good one.

Admittedly, this shift in rhetoric did not accompany a shift in position on the substantive issue. Olmert made clear that the Palestinian refugees whose fate he had lamented would find a "proper framework for their future in the Palestinian state" to come. In other words, they shall have no right of return to Israel. That policy has not changed.

Still, what underpins the right of return question is, in part, the Palestinian desire to have what they call the nakba, the catastrophe, of 1948 recognised by Israel. And today Olmert made a step towards that.

There was no real equivalent in Abbas's speech. At a similar peace gathering in Aqaba in 2003, the then Palestinian prime minister spoke of "the suffering of the Jews throughout history." He did not do any of that in Annapolis. Instead, he emphasised the Palestinians' pain and reiterated their demands: no more occupation, settlements or assassinations, an end to the separation wall, the release of prisoners and much more.

That makes complete sense. Abbas needed to shore up his own Palestinian constituency, to prove to those watching back home that he had not sold them out. Olmert felt that need too, obviously - but he had enough room for manoeuvre to reach out to his adversary. In other words, Abbas had to use strong words in Annapolis because he is the weaker party. Olmert could afford to sound softer because, of the two of them, he is the stronger. Such are the paradoxes of peacemaking.


Post a Comment

<< Home