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MANNA 102: Winter 2008

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He stood there and delivered his speech with great passion and without notes. ‘We have reached an absolutely crucial point in Jewish history. The opportunity to make peace comes once in ten years or even less. Last time Ehud Barak brought us very close and it was not his fault that the chance was lost’.

‘Now, we are within touching distance of peace once again. The Americans have helped us in a process that, in fact, began before Annapolis. The Palestinian Authority are almost there. It is absolutely vital that a deal is clinched’.

‘The deal will be extremely painful for the Jewish people. It will demand giving up much that is precious to us. We used to dream of a Greater Israel, which included the whole of the West Bank. Such aspirations were very understandable. Wherever you dig in the West Bank, just below the surface, you will find traces of Jewish history. But, we have to give up that dream, we have to make compromises, we have to accept the pain. There is no alternative’.

‘This may be our last chance to achieve two states, a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. Every day, pressure for ‘one state for two peoples grows’. It seems a very reasonable solution to many of the nations of the world. It is attractive to a world that wants to see peace in the Middle East and it is particularly attractive to the Palestinians. But it will not, cannot, work for us. We are committed to a democratic Jewish State. We must have a democratic state which lives by the rhythms of Jewish life and in which the majority are Jewish. That is not a possibility in a state that contains four million Arabs. Demographics and democracy make Greater Israel or one state for two peoples a disaster’.

‘Let me say again, that reaching an agreement now will be painful and costly, but it will be much more painful and much more costly in five or ten years time’. ‘It is also essential to continue the process that has been started with the Syrians. At the moment, Egypt acts as intermediary but the negotiation needs to become direct, bi-lateral. Of course, we can have no illusions about where the Syrians are at the moment. They are a major threat, and their support of Hizbollah and Hamas is clear. But if the process works, the Syrians will end up in a different place. They are ready for direct negotiations and Israel has to take risks’.

‘Finally’, he said, ‘there is the argument that first must come an economic peace and that will lead to a political peace. Let me make it clear that Tony Blair is doing an excellent job and that an economic peace will bring untold benefits to Israel and the whole of the Middle East. An economic peace will transform Israel and the entire region. But there can be no economic peace without a political peace’.

‘There is a choice: clinch the agreement which we are so close to now. Or, face the prospect of a further decade, or longer, of violence. The needless loss of life will be followed by a settlement much more costly to the Jewish people than the settlement which is attainable now. One State for two people will be the end of the Zionist dream and Israel as we know it’.

The speaker could have been the journalist Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian and Jewish Chronicle three years ago at a Reform Movement Council Meeting. But it was not. It was still, but only just, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking to the leadership of the British Jewish Community on his last Prime Ministerial visit to Britain in late December 2008.

The Jewish Chronicle criticised the Olmert visit as pointless. He leaves office in February. Olmert responded by banning the Jewish Chronicle, but not the Guardian, from his press conferences. The Jewish Chronicle reiterated its point, describing Olmert as disgraced and discredited. It is hard to see the point of Olmert’s visit. It is an acute embarrassment that, like all too many Israeli politicians, corruption charges hang heavily over him. Yet a senior British diplomat who knows the scene better than most has been saying for many months that Olmert is more effective than he is portrayed and the best chance for peace.

MANNA, a year ago, was saying that the Annapolis process might not be as stillborn as many thought. MANNA argued that desperation – Bush/Rice desperation for at least one success, the desperation of the Palestianian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the face of Hamas, Olmert des-peration in the face of a reputation defined by the second Lebanon War – could prove to be the best hope for peace.

Just ten days after the visit, Prime Minister Olmert authorised the operation to stop the rocketing from Gaza. MANNA has no doubt that what Olmert says is true. No government can allow its civilians to be rocketed and shelled repeatedly without, after all other measures have failed, taking military action. However, there is a clear connection between this operation and what Ehud Olmert said to the leadership of the Jewish community on that final visit to London. He explained that he had gone to great lengths and taken huge risks to make a settlement offer to Fatah. He added that Fatah had not quite been able to accept the offer. They were only ‘almost’ there.

Why? Because Hamas wields power through ruthless violence and evokes terror in all who oppose it, not the least their fellow Palestinians. It is clear that Prime Minister Olmert is determined to weaken Hamas by sealing the Egyptian border to prevent Iran arming them with longer range missiles and greatly diminishing their ability to fire rockets into Israel. Then, Olmert believes, Palestinians, particularly those on the West Bank, will feel safe to accept the offer he has placed on the table.

We wait to see whether his judgement is correct or based more on a desperate attempt to rehabilitate his tarnished reputation than on reality. Can Israel stop the rockets and loosen the hold of the terrorists? Will it be a priority for President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to seize the moment? Will Israel elect a government keen to pursue the Olmert peace plan? Will the Palestinians (and the Settlers) finally agree to the two state solution? Will three weeks of fighting in Gaza bring peace closer or drive those who want peace further apart?

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