I hereby nominate this as my Misleading Headline of the Week: Olmert hopes to resume talks with Palestinians
The article I linked to is from the Pakistan Daily Times, but that’s not particularly important as the original from Reuters and almost all the papers that picked up on the story up echoed the same hopeful thrust of this headline, suggesting that there is a renewed hope of peace talks now that Ehud Olmert at the helm. The problem is that if you read the whole article, you find that the headline might be technically true, but it’s an awfully optimistic take on what Olmert actually said about the prospects for final status talks:
JERUSALEM: Interim Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Tuesday that he hoped to resume peace negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after Israel’s March 28 general election. But Olmert said that such talks would depend on Israel’s long-standing demand for Abbas to disarm militant groups, a process the Palestinians are supposed to start under a US-brokered road map to peace.
“I hope that based on the results of their (Jan 25 Palestinian) elections, and after that the results of our elections, I will be able to enter negotiations with (Abbas) on condition that he will uphold his commitments ... for a permanent settlement between us and the Palestinians,” Olmert told reporters. But he added: “That depends on whether he (Abbas) will uphold his commitments to disarm the terror groups, and I hope that he will do this.”
Maybe because sheer proximity forces the Palestinians to listen more closely than the rest of us and to parse more carefully any statements from the Israeli government, it was the Palestine News Network that published a much more accurate rendition of what Olmert was actually saying. The PNN headlined the same story this way:
Olmert says negotiations with PA possible after factions disarm.
Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he hopes that negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel would resume after both Palestinian and Israeli elections, but conditioned the resumption of talks with the disarmament of Palestinian factions.
An Israeli source said Olmert would only start final status negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas if he disarms military factions in accordance with the Quartet-brokered Roadmap to Peace Plan.
Olmert held a press conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday after meeting the Israeli President Moshe Katsav, and demanded that the PA disarm the armed groups as a precondition to resuming peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The difference between the two headlines - one highlighting the renewal of talks and the other highlighting Olmert’s precondition for talks – is much more critical than just a difference of emphasis. The question of whether Ehud Olmert is willing to enter final status talks, or whether he will only negotiate after preconditions are met, is a vital one. It translates in real terms to the difference between returning to negotiations for a two state solution, or continuing the Sharon policy of annexation and unilateral borders imposed without negotiation. And the PNN is right to place the emphasis in its report on the fact that all Ehud Olmert actually did was to reiterate the Sharon position that Israel is willing to talk to the Palestinians, but first they must fulfil their Road Map commitments “to dismantle the infrastructure of terror”.
We have heard that precondition so often that we might almost start believing that the Road Map really does require the PA to take on Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad before Israel is required to do anything. But it’s simply not true: there are no preconditions to the Road Map (which both the PA and the government of Israel have officially accepted), and to insist on Palestinian disarmament as a prerequisite for carrying it out is a measured and cynical manoeuvre designed to ensure that the Road Map never takes off, so that an Israeli government that really doesn’t like the demands a negotiated peace would place on it might instead have an excuse for trying to impose a much more appealing unilateral “solution”.
Let me explain in the simplest possible terms why the difference between the Road Map and the Road Map with preconditions is much more than a semantic issue.
The Road Map envisages an end to the occupation that began in 1967, leading to two independent states, Israel and Palestine, existing side by side in peace and security etc, etc. To bring this about, each side has a laundry list of commitments to fulfil, but there are two that are particularly crucial: for the Israelis, there is the commitment to cease settlement activity (because you can’t have a two state solution where one state has gobbled up all the productive land), and for the PA, there is the commitment to dismantle the various armed Palestinian factions (because you can’t have two states existing in security where one state contains unaccountable paramilitary groups actively seeking the destruction of the other state). Both sides are required to at least begin tackling those issues in the first phase of the Road Map. The PA has to start collecting the weapons of the armed factions, and Israel is required to cease new settlement construction (including “natural growth” in existing settlements) and to dismantle the more than 100 new settlement “outposts” established under the two governments of Ariel Sharon.
Dismantling settlements and disarming militants are not only the most crucial commitments in the Road Map, they are also the most controversial. Settlers and militants have extremely vocal support in their respective societies, so the obligation to rein them in could potentially be the undoing of any government who takes them on. This makes it very tempting for both governments to sit back and wait for the other side to carry out its commitments first. With a bit of luck, whoever goes first will implode in civil disorder, leaving behind no cohesive “partner for peace” and removing any pressure on the other side to do anything to tackle the extremists in its own ranks.
The much-maligned Road Map came up with two quite creative mechanisms to get around this problem. Firstly, it laid out both sides’ commitments, and required them to be implemented simultaneously. So no one had to go first, and no one had the luxury of sitting back and saying “After you”. And secondly, to ensure that there was no foot-dragging or cheating, there was to be international monitoring of how well both sides were actually carrying out their requirements. The Quartet was to establish four monitoring committees – on humanitarian issues, reconstruction, security, and settlement activity - to provide objective and transparent oversight of how well the Israelis and Palestinians were performing their obligations in these areas. (Can you imagine what a warm fuzzy feeling Ariel Sharon must have had at the thought of an international committee publicly reporting on how well he was fulfilling his obligation to stop construction of settlements and start dismantling outposts?)
Actually, both sides had reservations: the PA really didn’t relish confronting Hamas, which it suspected might actually be able to outgun it. But there were big enough balancing factors to make the Road Map appealing to the Palestinian side: it guaranteed an end to the Occupation of 1967, an independent Palestine, the ending of settlement activity and – most important to a weaker party with international law on its side – formal international intervention in the conflict. These of course are the very reasons that the Road Map was unappealing to Ariel Sharon, who wanted very much to keep a chunk of the land occupied in 1967, and who really didn’t want international interference in a two-party dispute, seeing as he led the much stronger party.
Not wanting to go on record as opposing a two state solution or the peace plan that was supposed to lead there, Ariel Sharon gave the same welcome to the Road Map that Ehud Barak gave to the Clinton Parameters, i.e. he proclaimed loudly “YES, I ACCEPT”, while muttering quietly “but I do have a few conditions”. In Sharon’s case, the conditions comprised 100 proposed amendments to the published text of the Road Map, and 17 “reservations” regarding its content. And what the Israeli government’s reservations boiled down to was this: it didn’t want to deal with any international intervention in the conflict except by the U.S. Administration (which is why the Quartet has simply disappeared from the radar in the last two years), and it certainly didn’t accept international monitoring of how well it was carrying out obligations it had no intention of performing (which is why you’ve never read the progress reports of the four monitoring committees – they were never set up). Additionally, the Israelis dispensed with the notion of simultaneity: they insisted that the PA had to go first, and that it not only had to begin disarming militants as the Road Map’s first phase demanded, but it actually had to complete the dismantling of militant organisations before Israel was required to do anything.
So under Ariel Sharon the Israelis “accepted” the Road Map, but only a Road Map that they retroactively modified by unilaterally stripping it of precisely the two aspects that made it viable (i.e. simultaneity and monitoring), and by adding a precondition – “first they must dismantle the infrastructure of terror” - that they knew would be impossible for the PA to fulfil in isolation from the rest of the peace plan. The fact that this precondition was developed simply to give Ariel Sharon an excuse to evade his commitments was no secret; for example, Zvi Bar’el explained here for Ha'aretz readers how the manoeuvre worked:
It is difficult to understand the new excuse Israel is presenting for postponing implementation of the road map. Ostensibly, it is a logical and reasonable issue, which is even contained in the terms of the road map: confiscation of illegal weapons and waging war against "the infrastructure of terror." In fact, this is a vague condition that functions well as a barrier that can be easily deployed again and again, in an attempt at blocking any diplomatic progress.
According to the road map peace plan issued in Israel in April 2003, the Palestinians must "commence" confiscation of illegal weapons and not, as Israel claims, complete the collection process. In any case, this is only one of two conditions that are cited as part of the war against the infrastructure of terror. The main condition is an unequivocal cease-fire declaration and consolidation of security authority in the PA. The first condition has been fulfilled and the latter is in the process of being implemented.
The parallel condition demanded of Israel is stopping attacks against civilians and demolition of homes and, in particular, freezing all construction in the settlements. Israel is not fulfilling these conditions, nor its commitments from the agreements reached at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit. Settlement construction continues unabated, and the Israel Defense Forces are still targeting wanted Palestinians in the territories.
…[N]ow, when we've just begun to stop panicking every time a vehicle's engine backfires, and when it is possible to travel behind a bus without hurrying to pass it…. Israel is again pushing the button that blocks the peace process. The condition this time, of course, is to "first confiscate the weapons and then we'll transfer control of the cities to you."
…The transfer of control is liable to be interpreted as proof that the Palestinians have indeed fulfilled the conditions stipulated in the road map and that it is now Israel's turn to freeze settlements, help establish a Palestinian state and begin discussing withdrawal from the West Bank.
It is this stage that the government - and the prime minister in particular - fears so much. After all, he is the one who formulated the equation according to which the disengagement from Gaza would enable Israel to hold on to more of the West Bank. If he transfers control to the Palestinians, he would need to explain, especially to the Americans, why he is not continuing to implement his road map commitments.
Therefore, it is preferable to wait, delay and block - even at the expense of a few terror attacks, or perhaps the collapse of the cease-fire or the fall of Abu Mazen - as long as the road map remains a mute map. The tactic used for this end is to demand the confiscation of weapons. It is interesting that the Americans, who granted broad authority to the Iraqi government without precondition and who took such pride in the formation of an independent government in Afghanistan (which also did not succeed in confiscating weapons) have failed to see through this maneuver.
-- The pretext behind 'confiscating weapons'; 8 May 2005.
It was not difficult either to ascertain why Sharon should need a pretext to evade his commitments: basically, Sharon was never going to implement the Road Map because the Road Map led somewhere he never intended to go, i.e. to ending the Occupation and establishing a two state solution. Sharon intended instead to try to hold on to the major settlement blocs, East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, leaving the Palestinians to establish a state on the unlikely-looking patchwork of land left over (See map, left. Click to enlarge). As no Palestinian leader was ever going to agree to that monstrosity of a “state” as a settlement of the conflict, Sharon know that his policy could only be imposed unilaterally, and he therefore had to avoid talks at all costs. [Footnote 1].
“First they must dismantle the infrastructure of terror” served Sharon’s needs perfectly, seeing as the only people who could have forced him to stop inventing preconditions and get on with implementing the Road Map was a U.S. Administration that really had no interest in the peace plan anyway, and had only published it in the first place as a sop to the Arab states who were fuming over the invasion of Iraq. By setting the Palestinians an impossible precondition for a negotiated settlement, Sharon was able to pin the blame on the PA for the failure of a peace plan he was never going to implement, and to claim that as he clearly had no partner for peace he was unfortunately forced to rule out a negotiated settlement and to resort to the unilaterally-imposed solution that he intended to follow anyway.
And now, Ehud Olmert is repeating the same distorted reading of the Road Map that gave Ariel Sharon a pretext to try to impose unilaterally a better deal than he could get through negotiation. Bear in mind that Ehud Olmert has been a long-time supporter of the policy of “As much land as possible with as few Arabs as possible”, and that it was Ehud Olmert who articulated Israel’s solution to the Palestinian conflict in these terms on 5 December 2003: “[The] formula for the parameters of unilateral solution are: To maximize the number of Jews; minimize the number of Palestinians; not to withdraw to the 1967 border and not to divide Jerusalem”. Knowing that, you really have to go beyond wishful thinking and into the realms of wilful ignorance to imply that Olmert’s comments are a sign of a new openness to peace talks rather than a repetition of the same-old-same-old justification for unilateralism.
One more thing: Israel’s most widely-read daily paper, Yedioth Aharonoth, ran an article on Olmert’s comments last Thursday with this accompanying cartoon (via MAANnews):
Now, I can appreciate that placing Abu Mazen in the trash is meant as a metaphorical representation of a Palestinian leader whom the Israeli government and media systematically denigrate as a "weak" leader, and whose position seems to be worsening daily with the rise of Hamas. Nevertheless, I think it is in extremely poor taste for Yedioth Aharonoth to characterize Abu Mazen that way, seeing as Israeli-Palestinian discourse is rife with racist and dehumanizing language, used by people who call each other “trash” (and worse) and really don’t mean it metaphorically at all. Just yesterday - via peacepalestine - I read this charming story that appeared on the “02” Jerusalem news site:
בכנס שהתקיים אמש נגד הקמת בית ספר יהודי-ערבי בשכונת פת בירושלים תקפו מספר רבנים ובראשם הרב דוד בצרי את היוזמה
דבריהם של רבנים, שהשתתפו אמש בכנס נגד בקמת בית הספר היהודי-ערבי, בשכונת פת בירושלים, כללו מספר התבטאויות גזעניות כנגד ערבים.
הרב המקובל דוד בצרי, אמר: "הקמת בית ספר כזה הוא מעשה נבלה וטומאה. אי אפשר לערב טמא בטהור. הם פגע רע, שטן רע, נגע רע. הערבים הם חמורים ולכן נשאלת השאלה מדוע לא ברא אותם אלוהים הולכים על ארבע? ובכן, התשובה היא שהם צריכים לבנות ולנקות. אין להם מקום בבית ספרנו".
בנו של המקובל, הרב יצחק בצרי, התייחס גם הוא לפרשנות "ישמעאלים - עם הדומה לחמור" ואמר כי "הערבים הם נחותים. מה הם רוצים? לקחת את הבנות שלנו. אומרים עלינו שאנו גזענים. ובכן, הם הרשעים, הם האכזרים, ניחנים הם בזוהמה של נחש. יש טהור ויש טמא והם הטמא".
In a meeting that took place last night against the creation of a joint Jewish-Arab school in the Pat neighborhood of Jerusalem, several rabbis led by Rabbi David Batzri attacked the plan.
Comments by the rabbis who participated in the meeting… included a number of racial expression against Arabs.
Kabbalist Rabbi David Batzri said: "Establishing a school like this is a disgraceful, dirty deed. It is impossible to mix the pure with the impure. They are a blight, a devil, a disaster. The Arabs are donkeys, and we have to ask ourselves why didn’t God create them to walk on all fours. Well, the answer is that they are needed to build and to clean. They don’t have any place in our school.”
His son, Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri, also referred to the commentary that says “the Ishmaelites are like donkeys”, and said: "The Arabs are inferior. What do they want? They want to take our daughters. So, call us racists. Well, they are wicked, they are atrocious, they are dirty like snakes. There is pure and there is impure, and they are impure".
-- Rabbis make racial comments against Arabs; Walla! News, 10 Jan 2006.
David and Yitzhak Batzri are hardly the voice of Israeli Judaism. If I recall correctly, it was Rabbi Batzri (the elder) who reacted to Jerusalem’s first gay pride parade by suggesting that all homosexuals should be put to death(!), so there is definitely a touch of the Pat Robertson about him. But Pat Robertson’s hateful, stupid remarks about Ariel Sharon don’t really have the real-life implications of David Batzri’s hateful, stupid comments about Arabs, do they? The first phase of the Road Map requires both sides to clamp down on incitement against the other, precisely because Israel and Palestine have more than their share of kooky imams and rabbis whose hate speech attracts a large audience, some of whom from time to time act upon that hatred by attacking – and sometimes killing - the untermenschen on the other side.
Bearing in mind that Israelis and Palestinians hear crap like the Batzris’ comments on a far too regular basis, would it really be too much to expect Israel’s most popular daily paper to come up with a better way to depict the Palestinian President than as a piece of trash?
Footnote: The map is adapted from the PLO NAD's "Israel’s Walls and Settlements, August 2005", online here.