Ehud Olmert, Unreasonably Reasonable?

Palestinian ambassador Afif Safieh

The Palestinian ambassador Afif Safieh, since his arrival in Washington several months ago, has often used the line “We Palestinians have been unreasonably reasonable” in the approach to retrieving their land for achieving peace. Was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in his appearance before a joint session of Congress unreasonably reasonable in suggesting that negotiations could go forward because he was willing to give up some of his dream of having all of the Holy Land? Well, maybe.

Yesterday’s speech by Olmert was the sixth time that an Israeli head of government has been given the honor of appearing before a joint session of Congress in the last thirty years. He proved to be the darling of the more than 500 attending congressmen, who gave him a standing ovation frequently during the hour-long carefully-crafted speech.

Coming at a time when the Middle East seems to be sinking into another cycle of confrontation with the United States and more violence, the Israeli prime minister did everything he could to identify with the American political establishment. He cited Lincoln and the Old Testament and pointed to a new way for the United States to spend large sums of money on promoting the expansion of Israel.

His main theme was that he was prepared to negotiate, but only with Mahmoud Abbas, whom he called the “President of the Palestinian Authority,” not the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He then went on to say that the PA would have to fulfill the three mantras of U.S. policy towards the new Hamas-led government: renounce violence, accept previous agreements, and recognize Israel. These already seem old and tattered remnants of an earlier policy of isolation, previously of Arafat’s PLO.

But despite these failings, there is much in this speech to be seriously studied. The first part of the speech was devoted to linking Israel’s terrorism problem with the American problem, without mentioning the fact that Israel has been notably unsuccessful in fighting terrorism with military force and that the occupation of Palestine remains one of the main reasons for the radicalization of the Middle East.

The second part of the speech was devoted to setting forth a new vision for peace based on the “Road Map” and possible negotiations with “a Palestinian Authority” still led by Mahmoud Abbas. He sounded remarkably reasonable when he said, “We have to relinquish part of our dream to leave room for the dream of others, so that all of us can enjoy a better future.” But he left it very clear that if all the conditions for having negotiations at all were not met, Israel would carry out its “realignment” by itself.

The speech was marked by few specifics on what this “realignment” would mean on the ground. He declared that Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of Israel, but open to all religions. He made no reference the 300,000 Palestinians now trapped on the Israeli side of the wall, mostly in East Jerusalem.

The audience was particularly impressed with his statement that “Although our government has changed, Israel’s goal remains the same. As Prime Minister Sharon clearly stated: ‘The Palestinians will forever be our neighbors. They are an inseparable part of this land, as are we. Israel has no desire to rule over them, nor to oppress them. They too have a right for freedom and national inspirations.’” But this has been said before by an Israeli prime minister, Yitzakh Rabin.

Olmert weighed in on the U.S. political process several times by expressing his support for congressional initiatives favorable to his vision for Israel, including the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which the House passed the day before and which the Senate has yet to take up. The lack of specifying what Israel is willing to do beyond facilitating humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people leaves a large question mark on what will happen next.

Secretary Rice is due to visit the region in June, and Olmert made clear that any further advance in the peace process would require efforts by the United States. It is hard to see what Secretary Rice will be able to do, except to give a humanitarian band-aid to the Palestinian people by permitting NGOs to carry out their programs.

The third part of Olmert’s speech focused on Israel’s perceived threat from Iran, and he seemed to verge on insisting that the United States take action “now,” repeating that word several times. Olmert said he “applauded” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s Iran Freedom and Support Act.

Olmert also expressed support for the U.S.-Israel Energy Cooperation Act, an act drafted in part by the American Jewish Committee and introduced into the House and Senate last June. The bill currently has 49 co-sponsors in the House (H.R. 2730) and just 4 co-sponsors in the Senate (S. 1862). But he indicated that this energy cooperation would become a major effort, the goal being to develop the Galilee and the Negev with hundreds of millions and perhaps billions of American dollars presumably going to support the resettlement of 60,000 of the 350,000 settlers in the West Bank.

Such an initiative would provide yet another avenue for the Congress to reward Israel for negotiating the withdrawal for these Jewish Israeli colonists. There was no hint of Israel adhering to UN Security Council Resolution 242 or the Green Line. The crucial question is whether those concessions will come as part of a negotiated settlement or as the unilateral fulfillment of Israel’s vision for itself, with the Palestinians left to accept the results. In that sense, the Israeli prime minister was utterly irresponsible.

The Council for the National Interest is a non-profit, non-partisan grassroots organization founded seventeen years ago by former Congressmen Paul Findley (R-IL) and Pete McCloskey (R-CA) to advocate a new direction for U.S. Middle East policy. CNI seeks to encourage and promote a U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East that is consistent with American values, protects our national interests, and contributes to a just solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as to restore a political environment in America in which voters and their elected officials are free from the undue influence and pressure of a foreign country, namely Israel.

Related Links

  • Countdown to Apartheid, Jeff Halper (27 May 2006)
  • Israeli PM Ehud Olmert speaks to Congress (24 May 2006)
  • Council for the National Interest