Sounds of Silence

The intensity of the drama swirling about the leadership of the Palestinian Authority isn't penetrating Israeli ears; it can't get past all the media hoopla generated by the Baraks' breakup, the final stage of Israel's version of "The Bachelorette" television program and somewhat more serious matters like the police investigation of the Sharon family and the Or Commission's important report about the October 2000 riots.

1. The property receiver's test

The intensity of the drama swirling about the leadership of the Palestinian Authority isn't penetrating Israeli ears; it can't get past all the media hoopla generated by the Baraks' breakup, the final stage of Israel's version of "The Bachelorette" television program and somewhat more serious matters like the police investigation of the Sharon family and the Or Commission's important report about the October 2000 riots.

In Gaza and Ramallah, Yasser Arafat is fighting to preserve his status as the leader of the Palestinian people. He faces not only Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who is struggling for his political survival, but also the United States and Israel, which consider Abbas' selection as prime minister the result of a joint effort on their part, the purpose of which was to nudge the Israeli-Palestinian conflict onto a less bloody path.

From the American-Israeli perspective, Abu Mazen is like a property receiver who was appointed, largely at their behest, to save relations between the two peoples from total crisis and to help craft a reasonable accord out of the abject situation in which the parties now find themselves. The road map is the plan that Abu Mazen must implement. If he fails to do so, then the Americans and Israelis will no longer view him as a serious political leader. He was not chosen to give backing to a renewal of the terror attacks, but to transform the armed conflict into a dialogue that could produce a Palestinian state within months.

Abu Mazen is aware of the expectations of him, which correspond with his declared position that it is in the Palestinian interest to forgo terrorism as a means of achieving political objectives. He also knows about the extent of the effort made by Israel and the U.S. to help get him elected. For this reason (or, at least, this is the explanation that he gave Israel), he arrived at the hudna (temporary cease-fire) with Hamas and Islamic Jihad based on this formula: As long as they refrained from perpetrating terror attacks, the Palestinian government would not take them on; if they violated this understanding, it would act forcefully against them. Not everyone in Israel believed this portrayal of things: Shin Bet security service officials and some on the General Staff argued that the accord that Abu Mazen reached with the militant organizations attests to the Palestinian prime minister's weakness, and that as soon as more terrorist attacks occurred, he would shrink from confronting them.

This pessimistic assessment proved true, though the U.S. and Israel still refuse to give up on the hopes they placed in Abu Mazen. Maybe because they have no alternative to hang onto, or maybe because they recognize, ex post facto, Israel's contribution to the deterioration of the situation. Or maybe because the future simply looks frightening to them.

2. Troublesome conduct

With Ariel Sharon, it's hard to tell when his real position is being expressed by him or by one of his sons - when his words or his silence faithfully reflects his stance, or whether this ought to be sought in the words, or silence, of his sons.

After he was elected prime minister, Sharon ostensibly stuck to his pledge not to hold a dialogue with Yasser Arafat. But at the same time, he sent his son Omri to negotiate with the Palestinian leader. Omri's contacts with Arafat grew so intensive that the attorney general's intervention and a subsequent High Court hearing were necessary to get the father to call a halt to his son's missions. What exactly was happening then? Was Sharon sitting in his Jerusalem office with his mouth closed, or was his mouth open and talking with Arafat in Gaza and Ramallah?

And where is Sharon really speaking today - at the press conference in which he promised to give the police a full account of the Cyril Kern affair, or in the silences of his son Gilad in the police interrogation rooms? When is Omri Sharon providing his own information and when is he just his father's spokesman - in the talks with Arafat, in his silences with the police or in his formal answers this week to the fraud squad investigators?

Omri Sharon's conduct is particularly troublesome. He sought the public's trust in order to be elected to the Knesset. The Knesset's primary role is to legislate. Omri Sharon, therefore, is a legislator. How does the legislator Omri Sharon relate to the laws of the state and their interpretation by the courts? After all, the law commands each citizen to assist the police in getting at the truth and the courts criticize those who conceal information from the law enforcement authorities.

Ordinary folks would be ashamed to show their faces in public after engaging in the kind of behavior exhibited by Sharon and sons, but the latter couldn't seem to care less.

3. A heroic effort

For two years, between January 1999 and February 2001, Jewish and Arab intellectuals, all of them Israeli citizens, met periodically under the sponsorship of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) and tried to draft a kind of charter that would create a common denominator for Jewish and Arab coexistence in Israel. It was a heroic effort. The finest experts on the issue of majority-minority relations in the state - from academia, public service and a few from the political system - took part. The group included people like Professors Ruth Gavison, Mordechai Kremnitzer, Sami Smooha and Eli Rekhes on the one side, and Adal Mana, Ahmed Sa'adi, Khaled Abu Asba and Talal al-Karnawi on the other. They were joined by other academics and by some politicians, both from the right (Moshe Arens, Michael Eitan) and the left (Matan Vilnai). The group also had meetings with other experts and officials (such as Prof. Oren Yiftahel and Ami Ayalon) and read a number of expert opinions that were drafted for this purpose.

Reaching an understanding between Jewish and Arab citizens was no easy task. The 20 regular participants held 17 meetings that involved some very tough questioning and soul-searching. It was an uncommonly serious intellectual and emotional attempt to find common ground. Jews and Arabs, citizens of the same state, tried with real honesty to define their identity, to understand their counterparts' perspective, to muster all the goodwill and intellectual power at their disposal to formulate a joint understanding that would express agreement about the definition of the state, the place of the majority and the minority within it, and their mutual relations.

At first, they worked to come up with mutually acceptable wording regarding the objective of their meetings. Then they divided the issue of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel into subcategories and carefully studied each of the problems with the aim of finding agreed-upon solutions. They dealt with the question of the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and the implications this has for the Arabs' status. And they asked themselves how to give expression to the status of the Arabs as a national minority: Should the goal be autonomy, partnership and representation, or affirmative action? They discussed the security forces' attitude toward the Arabs, the question of national service (military or civilian) and legislative changes, and dedicated a special session to the issue of lands.

The meetings, which began in the relatively tranquil period when Ehud Barak came to power and the dialogue with the Palestinians still seemed promising, continued until a few months after the disturbances of October 2000. The process did not come to a happy end, though it did not fail solely because of the cloud that hovered over it due to the riots, about which the Or Commission released its findings this week. Even prior to that, the participants were finding it hard to overcome the built-in difficulty of the contradiction between Israel's identity as a Jewish state and its simultaneous self-definition as a democratic state.

The expectations of the two peoples, which derive from these two conflicting definitions, clashed head on in the conference rooms of the IDI. Even the most arrantly leftist Jewish representatives could not accept the demand of the most moderate Arab representatives that Israel renounce the justness of the Zionist idea. They apparently felt that satisfying the minority's (warranted) demand for full equality would mean ridding the state of its Jewish features.

This was a painful and sobering realization, and it was accompanied by emotional outbursts by participants from both sides. For example, Prof. Kremnitzer said: "As long as the Jews in Israel think that the Arabs in Israel do not accept Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state, 1,000 documents of the type that we're going to write will not change the basic Jewish attitude toward the Arabs of Israel ... If the Arabs say: `That is something we will not give,' for the Jews it means that this work is a waste of time ... Here's the problem that I see with it: If something is not legitimate, then there is no ethical reason not to act against it, including by breaking the law ... In my view, this is a critical point and therefore, to me, the matter of legitimacy is an essential one." To which Prof. Adal Mana replied: "The people from the Arab side who are sitting around this table say that we want to arrive at a historic and most painful compromise and to live as a Palestinian national minority within the State of Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish state. This is a great historic compromise that we are making. To demand that we go a step beyond that, to come and say: `Give us legitimacy,' or: `Admit that you were wrong in what you did and so you are basically sorry and are apologizing and so forth,' means that I am going to change my values and my moral position, and I cannot do that."

A couple of nights ago, Prof. Arik Carmon, president of the IDI, noted that there was an epilogue to this story: A few weeks after the group's final session, Arab MKs met with people from the institute to discuss its initiative to formulate a constitution. There, they apparently reached agreement on wording that says the State of Israel is the place in which the Jewish people is fulfilling its right to self-determination.

4. Barak's acrobatics

Here's a pretty safe bet: None of the ministers will read the Or Commission's report. And, of course, they have a good excuse not to do so: Members of the government are, by definition, very busy people. At most, they'll read the summary of the report, in which the main findings and recommendations are printed double-spaced and in big letters. This is a shame. Because if they bothered to read the 831 pages of the report, they would learn something important about the rules of reward and punishment in public life. They'd see that at the end of the day, public figures have to give an accounting of their actions, that they are not forever immune from scrutiny.

They ought to take a look, for instance, at pages 587-89, in the second volume of the report. The subject under discussion is the nature of the instruction that Prime Minister Ehud Barak gave about opening the traffic arteries, including the Wadi Ara road. This was a central question in the commission's investigation, because the way that the police carried out this order - using lethal force - caused the deaths of 12 people. The commission quotes a radio interview that Barak gave on October 1, 2000, in which he said that the security forces have "a green light for any action necessary in order to ensure that traffic is kept open everywhere."

When he appeared before the commission - now aware of the gravity of the results that derived from his directive - Barak tried to minimize its importance: It wasn't an operative order, he explained. His choice of words was intended to calm the public, and he actually instructed the police to avoid casualties, even at the cost of closing roads.

To Barak's shame, the commission found that the "green light" was given to the police not only on the radio, but also in internal discussions of an operative nature, as was revealed by other testimony and documents. Moreover, the protocol of the October 2, 2000 cabinet meeting records the prime minister as saying: "The way must be found to ensure that the (Wadi Ara) road remains open." At the end of the session, Barak again told the ministers that the closing of roads and the disruption of life in the country could not be tolerated and that all necessary means should be used so that such a situation cannot recur.

The intent of Barak's words in October 2000 is clear. He says the same thing in internal discussions that he says in public: Everything must be done to keep the roads open. But two years later, when he is asked to give an accounting before a national commission of inquiry, he goes through all sorts of acrobatics in order to present the order he gave in a more innocuous light. For one thing, he gives the commission this explanation: His statements to the cabinet were not of an operative nature; he chose them deliberately in the knowledge that they would be leaked. In other words, Ehud Barak was asking Judges Theodor Or and Hashem Khatib and Prof. Shimon Shamir to believe that what he told the government on the morning of October 2, 2000 did not reflect his true instruction to the police (which, as he claims two years later, was to tolerate the closing of roads for a while longer just to avoid any losses of life), but was meant to signal determination to the Israeli public and to deter the Arab rioters from continuing to rampage.

The commission was not impressed by Barak's contortions: "This claim is baffling," it writes, noting that Barak's testimony is not consistent with the nature of that government meeting (which was convened as a meeting of the ministerial committee for security matters), nor with the presumption that the prime minister is obliged to give true reports to the ministers, nor with the accepted custom that a prime minister's summation at such a meeting is akin to an order to the operative echelons - for which the government is responsible.