David Ben-Gurion used to change the message inherent in his well-known derisive appellation of the United Nations, "oom shmoom," by saying that "it does not matter what the gentiles think, rather what the Jews do."
Ehud Olmert has turned that sentiment around. Over the grave of Israel's first prime minister, the current prime minister spoke on and on, demanding that the Arabs do this and do that. He did speak of pulling out of "many territories," about an independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory and, of course, about peace and brotherhood. But in order for the gentiles to discern what lies behind the nice words of the Jews, they must apparently first pay in deeds. In order for the lawyer-prime minister to agree to begin negotiations on real estate, he is demanding a down payment in cash: the replacement of an elected Palestinian government, the release of Gilad Shalit and meticulous maintenance of the cease-fire.
If there is any credibility to Olmert's words, then the man who rebelled against his leader, Menachem Begin, and who opposed the first Camp David agreement, has undergone a major ideological revolution. As early as last year in June, after he pushed Ariel Sharon into the disengagement plan, Olmert bombarded the members of the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), who met in New York, with placating statements. "We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies," the then vice premier said. He concluded his address with a declaration of independence, stating that we have recognized "that we really don't need the United States to lead the process in the Middle East. We will lead this process in the Middle East."
It is possible that then, just like today, the words were all talk and spin. It is possible that the Sde Boker address was aimed at the ears of the gentile George Bush, and of the gentiles in Europe. It is hard to discount the interpretation that the prime minister was jealous of the inviolability of his predecessor, and sought to win the heart of the media.
The answer to the true intentions of Olmert can be found in the actions of the Palestinians. He means to do what his colleague, Ehud Barak, claims to have done to Yasser Arafat: "to expose the true face" of Israel's neighbor. Only the Palestinians can force Olmert to show his cards and reveal what he means by "many territories." If we do not make it to the negotiating table we will never know whether the prime minister has indeed moved a long way toward the Palestinians regarding the extremely sensitive issue of the refugees: Will he really make do, as he said over the grave of the "Old Man," with the Palestinians giving up the physical act of returning to areas within Israel's borders, rather than the actual right of return itself?
Prime minister Yitzhak Shamir also spoke highly of peace, but conditioned his agreement to join the 1991 international conference in Madrid on the participation of all the neighbors. He was gambling on Syria's Hafez Assad to turn down the invitation of then U.S. secretary of state James Baker, and did not believe that Arafat would agree to a delegation made up only of representatives from the territories. The Arabs proved to Shamir that they cannot be trusted, and he found himself in negotiations over the Golan Heights, and in indirect talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization. That was the beginning of the end for the greater Land of Israel.
It is correct and fair to say that the Israeli occupier is the one who can, and should, prove with deeds that his words and intentions are the same. Indeed, it is unfortunate that a government where former peace activists sit is exhibiting such a degree of criminal indifference toward such a large civilian population, and is also not keen on keeping agreements. But that is how things are.
Nevertheless, the Palestinians need to crack the Olmert riddle. European friends, not to mention President Bush, will not get their hands dirty in a confrontation with Israel over the Quartet's preconditions. If the residents of the territories do not force their government to meet these conditions, and release Shalit, no one will do that for them.
The growing threat of the spread of radical Islam in the Middle East and the urgent need to bolster a coalition of pragmatists, lend added importance to a settlement with the Palestinians. This is a wonderful opportunity to hold Olmert to his word.
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