Olmert’s departure: The perfect alibi

Mahmoud Abbas, George W. Bush and Ehud Olmert at the Annapolis summit, November 2007. (Omar Rashidi/MaanImages)

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, engulfed in scandal, has finally bowed to the inevitable and announced he will resign as soon as his Kadima party chooses a new leader.

The conventional wisdom quickly developed among peace process industry analysts that Olmert’s departure would be a “setback” for ongoing negotiations with the Ramallah Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, endangering the much-touted goal announced at last November’s Annapolis summit of reaching a final agreement by the end of this year.

While some of his lieutenants lamented the departure of yet another Israeli “man of peace,” Abbas put on a brave face saying negotiations would continue no matter what. Yet the mood was one of mourning and despair.

The truth is that there is not a peace process to mourn. Yes, there have been constant meetings, including between Abbas and Olmert, but these never produced even modest progress on any of the “final status” issues. On the contrary, there were repeated admissions from both sides that chances of an agreement were close to nil.

Abbas concluded his last visit to Washington in April with emphatic statements that there was no hope, and no political will in Washington to make real progress, not least to pressure Israel to halt colony construction on occupied land. Ahmed Qureia, Abbas’ chief negotiator similarly declared that a “miracle” would be needed to overcome these obstacles.

The role of Olmert, for most of his career a “Greater Israel” hardliner, has been to guarantee from the Israeli side the absence of any progress. He has been no less a supporter for the continued colonization program than his mentor Ariel Sharon.

Olmert flew home from Annapolis to immediately announce plans for thousands of new settler housing units around Jerusalem. Olmert defiantly claimed that building around Jerusalem — one of the key negotiation issues — was no one’s business but Israel’s! Throughout the West Bank, Israel continued to bury the possibility of a Palestinian state with its brazen and aggressive expansion of Jewish-only colonies, and increasing the walls and checkpoints that cage Palestinians into their ghettos, despite promises to remove them. Just days ago, Israel announced 700 more settler housing units.

The negotiations continued through all this not because they were going to resolve the conflict, but merely because going through the motions was necessary for all the participants — Israeli, Palestinian, American, European and Arab — to justify their existence and at the same time defer the day when they might be held accountable for the fact that they have achieved absolutely nothing towards the “vision” of a two-state solution.

So how could a dead peace process be more dead just because one of those who killed it is about to leave the scene of the crime?

Any game of deception can only go on for so long. With the end-of-year deadline fast approaching and no progress in sight, no one was naive enough to believe that had Olmert stayed on, peace could have been achieved. Not only did Abbas and Olmert lack political consensus among their respective publics supporting their efforts, but the gaps between them were unbridgeable.

What Olmert’s departure now provides, however, is the perfect face-saving excuse for the inevitable failure. Relying on media amnesia, peace process industry operators hope to give rise to a new myth that had Olmert only stayed on, peace might have been reached. This industry relies on such myths in order to conceal its unbroken record of failure ever since it was given life with the 1993 Oslo Accords.

The most powerful such myth is that the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist is primarily responsible for derailing peace. Rabin’s death spares those who propagate this myth from asking whether Rabin would have been likely to reverse a Zionist settlement program to which he was committed. Would Rabin, who did not dare remove even one settler from Hebron after Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre, or from Gaza, and continued to build all over Jerusalem, have truly withdrawn hundreds of thousands of settlers and allowed the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital on all the territories occupied in 1967? Perhaps we will never know for sure, but Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, said that Rabin “never thought [Oslo] will end in a full-fledged Palestinian state.” According to Ben-Ami, Rabin thought that at best Israel would grant Palestinians a “state-minus.”

Indeed, this is consistent with all that has happened on the ground and all we know about Oslo now after dozens of histories and memoirs have been published. Oslo was never intended to end the occupation, but to legitimize it and secure international financing for it. At no point did Israel slow, halt or begin to reverse its colonization of the West Bank with settlements, bypass roads and ultimately ghetto walls. The Palestinian Authority was simply a native administration designed to relieve the occupier of the burden of policing or providing for the Palestinians or granting them political rights and citizenship.

Rabin did the relatively easy things — signing symbolic agreements and adopting the persona of a transformed “man of peace” (as Sharon and Olmert did after him). Had Rabin lived, he, like his successors, would eventually have run into the reality that Israel’s plans could never meet minimal Palestinian requirements and confrontation would have been inevitable. Yet the convenient myth of Rabin lives on.

Obviously, the new myth will not be as significant. Olmert is not Rabin and Annapolis was not Oslo. While Rabin paid with his life for even appearing to challenge Israeli Jewish supremacy, Olmert is paying only with his job and his perks. On the other side, the Palestinian “partner” does not reach the mythical status of Yasser Arafat. So we have diminished myths for diminished characters and probably these myths will have a diminished life-span as the mythmakers struggle to hold back the tide of cruel reality that threatens to wash them away.

But there are other distractions to keep us busy. In the region it is the season for the regular ritual of watching US and Israeli elections to build hopes or disappointment based on who might fill the leadership seats. We have been doing this for decades without it ever advancing our causes or mitigating our political failures. Has the time not come to realize that we have to take our affairs into our own hands and have others watch our elections instead, and at last respect the results and the will of the people?

Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This article first appeared in The Jordan Times and is reprinted with the author’s permission.