Anything could happen

Robert Rosenberg (Photo:

Haaretz was reporting this morning that Israel and the Palestinians have reached agreement on the principle of a prisoner exchange quoting a Gazan source as saying that Israel is now holding up discussions of the details of the deal, including how it would take place, which of several hundred Palestinian prisoners would be released, and when it would take place. At night, Channel 10 reported on the first attempted military putsch in the history of the country, a group of colonels, brigadiers and at least one reserve major general was named as taking part among others, demanding Dan Halutz resign as chief of staff of the IDF.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was in Israel for the day, telling a new conference that he had no reason to believe the two soldiers held by Hizbollah were not alive, that Israel is responsible for most of the ceasefire violations so far, and that he expects Israel to withdraw its remaining troops in south Lebanon once the new UNIFIL has 5,000 troops on the ground. At least 2,000 Italian troops were on board ships heading to Lebanon this morning, and there is talk that as early as this weekend many if not most of the remaining Israelis in southernmost Lebanon — estimated at around 5,000 — would be returning to Israel by the end of the weekend.

Annan is planning to expand his swing to include Damascus and Tehran, with some on the Israeli Right arguing that a visit to Iran right now by the secretary general would play into Tehran”s hands. But Annan has much more than the fate of two or three Israeli soldiers to discuss in Tehran — tomorrow is the final deadline for Tehran to make clear if it is suspending its uranium enrichment program. So far it has said no, it is not, but at the same time has said it is open to negotiations about the fate of its nuclear plans. In Israel, of course, which almost daily hears reports about how Iranian President Ahmadinejad considers Israel to be the most evil state on earth, or how it will be blown away in a breath, or how it must be eliminated for there to be world peace, any deference to Tehran is considered nothing short of Chamberlain-like appeasement. On the other hand, the Israeli government and army”s failure to totally smash the Hizbollah is worrying not only Israelis but also the Americans, some Europeans and some Arab countries that feel threatened by Iran. If Israel could not defeat the few thousand Hizbollah guerrillas, what can be done against a country as large as Iran?

Rev. Jesse Jackson, heading a religious delegation that included a priest and a rabbi, beat Aannan to Damascus and they spoke with Hizbollah and heard messages from Hamas. They said they believe the three soldiers are in good health and that the Syrians and Hizbollah have different agendas for returning prisoners held by Israel. Jackson’s played these grounds before; his demeanor so far seemed more demeanor than in the past, which might help him with the Israelis who never trusted his frothy rhetoric and never liked his sympathy for the Palestinians without civil rights since 1967.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pointed out yesterday in an off-the-cuff speech in which he said that the Golan would remain forever in Israeli hands — putting paid to speculation about leveraging the war and the restoration of Arab pride into a renewed peace process with Syria — he can appear openly wherever he wants, while Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah remains “in the bunker.” That, said Olmert is just one of many signs of Israel”s victory in the war.

Maybe. Or maybe Olmert”s speech was part of his seemingly Sisyphean efforts to restore confidence in him as prime minister. His announcement of the establishment of three separate inquiries into the management of the war, politically, militarily and socially on the home front, has only prompted even more criticism of him, though the criticism has hardly boiled over into street demonstrations or angry protests. Indeed, the few dozen reservist protestors in Jerusalem outside the Prime Minister”s Office could barely draw a hundred marchers to walk the several hundred meters from the Center for Menachem Begin”s Heritage to the PMO, and the marchers deliberately walked in silence, just carrying their placards, as if their silence could overcome the daily din of politics in Israel.

There is no doubt that the political arena is in turmoil. One leading political analyst, Raviv Drucker of Channel 10 has been using the image of a dark room in which the politicians are blindfolded, trying to assess the size of the beast they call public furor. Trouble is, while there is an overall sense in the street of a need for some change, the same polls that show deep disappointment with Olmert and Amir Peretz fail to show anyone replacing them with a solid majority in the Knesset. True, theoretically, if Kadima were to fall apart, as some expect, with many of its members going back to the Likud, the Right under Binyamin Netanyahu might be able to cobble together a coalition. But it promises nothing other than more war, something that Israelis seemed fed up with. And few Israelis want elections now. Even if they did, they would not give enough votes to any one party — or even to a bloc — that could then put together a coalition.

In short, this is a testing time for Israeli democracy. If Olmert is right, and the investigation committees he established will work fast and if not completely thoroughly, at least credibly, he and his government could survive the crisis. On the other hand, the political tension is very high, so high that the fall discussions on the 2007 budget could easily turn into a coalition crisis that breaks up the government. What happens then is anybody”s guess, though the prevailing conventional wisdom is on a revolt against Peretz as Labor”s leader, a disintegration of Kadima as a virtual party with no roots, and a Right too fragmented to unite under one leader. In short, it”s “anything could happen” time in Israel.

For example, the Channel 10 report, which named red-headed Yair Yayah, who made his major generalship when he became head of manpower branch in the IDF and left the army in the 1990s.

Or for that matter, an article by Ghazi Hamed, the Hebrew-speaking spokesman for the Hamas government, arguing that it is time for the Palestinians to grow up and realize that resistance is not nation building and that they have missed their opportunities because they blamed all their chaos on the Israelis, when there was much that could — and should — have been done over the last decade at least, and certainly in the last year, when Hamas has been in control.

President Mahmoud Abbas had to tell a crowd of demonstratiing PA employees that all the monies sent by the Arab League had been passed down the proper channels ‘and anybody who says different is a liar, liar, liar.’ Considering he is head of Fateh, which was voted out of office because of corruption, the president may be sincere, but sounds very naive. The prevailing wisdom is for a Hamas-Fateh government, but nobody quite knows how to arrange it. Olmert’s office will only meet with Abbas after Gilad Shalit is returned. The Hizbollah and Hamas won’t even allow the International Red Cross see the abducted soldiers, and Israel has to rely on the hearsay speculation of people it regards as naive, who say they havebeen told convincingly that the soldiers are in fine shape. In other words, nobody has the courage to break the rising tension by offering the other side respect, let alone civility.

There is a feeling that Israeli society and Palestinian society are teetering on edge; the sensible thing to do all around would be to engage as many sides as possible in talks, to calm things down. Meanwhile, alas, those in power seem to care only about remaining in power as it becomes less and less evident if they really are.

Based in Tel Aviv, Robert Rosenberg is a senior editor, translator and newswriter at the International Herald Tribune-Haaretz. This article was originally published at