Olmert's Signposts

Words are not just declamations or legal formulas that are open to contradictory interpretations.

Like a donkey that starves to death because it can't decide which of two piles of feed to eat, for 12 years Israeli society has been unable to make up its mind over the lesson to be learned from the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and in the end finds itself struggling over the right to hold an annual memorial day in his honor at all.

There were two fundamental messages that could have been instilled in the public in the wake of the murder: To condemn to eternal disgrace anyone who raises a hand against a public figure merely because that figure sought to make peace with enemies of the state; to internalize the democratic debate by which national disagreements are decided and to categorically reject all use of violence in this context.

Neither message was inculcated; instead, the state chose to focus on the murder victim and to glorify him, to the absurd point of conducting a desperate search for "his legacy." The price of this error can be seen in the mechanical manner in which the assassination is taught in the schools (primarily, by going over the highlights of Rabin's life); in the multiplication of memorial sites with only the haziest connection to Rabin; and, in its most serious form, in the booing of Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans, in the shameful posters showing President Shimon Peres wearing a kaffiyeh that have appeared on walls in Jerusalem recently, and in the veiled threats to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that have been voiced in response to his speech to the Saban Forum this week.

Olmert has linked himself to Rabin's path to peace in a considerable number of public appearances. Among the most prominent of these were the speech he gave immediately after being elected prime minister, which was adopted as an appendix to his government's principle tenets; his remarks at David Ben-Gurion's grave; and the guidelines for ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflicts at the Saban Forum. With each speech, the prime minister deepens his commitment to the peace process and amplifies the public voice he gives to that commitment. The Olmert of late 2007 is a different man than Olmert the patron of Beitar Jerusalem circa 2000, who launched a harsh attack on prime minister Ehud Barak because of his ostensible willingness to divide Jerusalem in his meeting with Yasser Arafat at Camp David. In his second years as prime minister, scarred by the Second Lebanon War, the rise of Hamas and other troubles, Olmert now occupies the same rhetorical position that is usually reserved for Yossi Beilin.

In his speech to the Saban Forum, Olmert declared that now is the time to reach an agreement with the Palestinians because, "The Palestinian leadership is headed by men committed to all the agreements previously signed with the State of Israel." He called the upcoming summit in Annapolis an "opportunity" that "must be taken" because "we have a partner and we are not willing to postpone negotiations to a later date, at which point our partner might not be capable of fulfilling the mission." Olmert declared that "we will not avoid fulfilling our own obligations to the letter," while recognizing that, "Some of them are difficult, some will create considerable political hardships." He set a timetable, as well: To "achieve real accomplishments perhaps even before the end of President Bush's term in office."

It may be justified to be skeptical about Olmert's unequivocal statements: It is possible they are nothing but a score composed to harmonize with the expectations of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and with the purpose of making the flight to Annapolis a more pleasant one. It is possible that they reflect the attitude of Olmert the lawyer to formulas. In any event, he can cite precedents established by his predecessors if he decides to recant: Levy Eshkol coined the immortal phrase, "Sure, I promised, but I never promised to keep my promise," while Yitzhak Shamir made deception kosher when he said, "It's permitted to lie in the interest of the state."

Words, however, are not just declamations or legal formulas that are open to contradictory interpretations. Words are also the voice of the heart. Words create expectations and moods. Peoples have fomented revolution through the power of words. And for the past year and a half Prime Minister Olmert has been posting ever-clearer signposts leading to a road whose destination is an arrangement with the Palestinians; he will make a fool of himself if he turns his back on that road - and Olmert is a man who takes himself very seriously.