Tidings From a Leper

Suppose the renewal of talks with Syria is meant to be a distraction from the investigations - does this detract from the importance of the step, from its legitimacy and necessity, from the precedent it sets?

The term "deja vu" seems to have been invented especially for describing the ritual of "talks with Syria." Such talks reawaken periodically and have been a repeating pattern for 40 years, down to the last detail - from their sudden appearance as a subject at the top of the Israeli agenda (usually as a diversion from other matters) to the emergency gatherings for leaders of the Golan settlements, from hasty farewell trips to the region (undertaken a multitude of times) to the bumper stickers adamantly opposing Israeli withdrawal and the talk of eating hummus in Damascus and going to Europe by car. And then the ritual dissolves - until the next time around.

Is it serious this time? Has a new record been set? The current announcement of talks with Syria came at such a crucial moment in the criminal investigation of the prime minister that one feels Ehud Olmert inherited from Ariel Sharon not only the ever-present can of worms, but also the thick-skinned brutality and mischievous sense of humor as well. Even Sharon might not have dared to produce such blatant, transparent and clumsy "spin," the announcement of the talks coinciding precisely, down to the minute, with the report of further incriminating evidence against the PM. Olmert's move might attest to utter desperation or to profoundly serious intentions; in any case, it reflects his disavowal of any criticism, suspicion or mockery. Indeed, there are three things of which Olmert is not currently suspected: an excess of shame, innocence or integrity.

Having said that, we must ask: So, what then? Suppose the renewal of talks with Syria is meant to be a distraction from the investigations - does this detract from the importance of the step, from its legitimacy and necessity, from the precedent it sets? Had we been blessed with a prime minister of spotless virtue, one who would be willing to concede territory with clean hands, sheathed in immaculate white gloves, would the proponents of annexation have bowed their heads compliantly before the decision? Did Rabin's famous integrity, for example, help him in similar circumstances? For even the head of a stable government, enjoying unprecedented public support - as Sharon was with his disengagement program - was accused by the settler right of having "no mandate to make territorial concessions." (The right has hurled the same accusation at every prime minister for 40 years).

The issue here is not one of ethics or "values" but of politics - pure, cynical and cold. The pretense that a diplomatic agreement can be reached only by a saintly prime minister is another propaganda maneuver from the settler right, which has never demanded clean hands of prime ministers who favored annexation. The dovish camp, by contrast, is accused of hypocrisy and cynicism when it supports the international moves of a prime minister, from Barak through Sharon to Olmert, without inquiring closely into the integrity of his conduct and the purity of his motives.

The left has earned this criticism, since it has always mixed its views on the political situation with a self-righteous pose and legal purism. But in politics there is no room for the romanticism or moralizing of a youth movement. At some forks in the road, it is necessary to focus on what is truly important. There is no shame in exploiting the constraints of a prime minister to further an agenda, just as the right has been doing successfully for years. This does not contradict the need to cut the man down and demand he be removed from office should his transgressions be proved in other areas. We need not recite and embrace (as some leftist purists do) the lines of the poet Rahel: "But I will not want tidings of salvation,/ If they come from a leper." Let them come, indeed!

Why is it that only political lepers ever bear "tidings" here? Or do the "tidings" turn them into lepers? And why do our leaders only turn to peace as a desperate, end-of-the-road maneuver? If peacemaking is considered a kind of pandering to the public, while annexation is electoral poison, why does this situation not find political expression on ordinary days?

These may be unnecessary questions. Knowing how serious these "tidings" usually are, perhaps they merit the words of the doctor in the joke: Don't worry. It will fall off by itself.