Israels accidental prime minister

JERUSALEM (bitterlemons.org) — Ehud Olmert would probably never have made it to the office of prime minister of Israel were it not for two events related to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: the creation of Kadima and Sharon's stroke and subsequent coma. Sharon created Kadima, a 'centrist' political party, at the expense of other parties, most importantly Labor and Likud, with the latter only recovering during the recent elections, providing Binyamin Netanyahu with a chance to become, once again, prime minister.

Olmert continued Sharon's policy of hafrada (apartheid in Afrikaans) that aimed at unilaterally separating Israelis from Palestinians by building a separation wall deep inside occupied Palestinian territory. This wall has devastated Palestinian life in ways that cannot be explained here but are the reasons the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion calling for it to be removed. (That ruling has been ignored, but even if it had been a UN Security Council resolution, it would still be collecting dust. Israel functions with total disregard to Palestinian rights, even when they are supported by international law.)

Olmert paid lip service to the two-state solution while, in practice and similar to other Israeli prime ministers, he allowed Jewish colonies in the West Bank, which includes East Jerusalem, to grow by confiscating more and more Palestinian land. According to B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights watchdog, 'The sharp changes Israel has made to the map of the West Bank make a viable Palestinian state impossible.' Recent statements by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' advisors indicate that at no point did Olmert present a map or a detailed plan for the implementation of a two-state solution.

As an excuse for not implementing the roadmap, Olmert used the 'Abbas is a weak leader' mantra that had been trotted out by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on numerous occasions. Yet it was Olmert who rendered Abbas weak by not being courageous enough to do what is necessary for peace. The desperate visits by the Palestinian president to Olmert's residence did not yield anything except humiliation. Future Palestinian leaders should avoid such unnecessary diplomacy. A Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip is, after all, an Israeli interest. Peace should not be left to Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians. Israel should be given an ultimatum to implement the two-state solution in full, after which Palestinians are justified in subscribing to alternative models, including the one democratic state model. The Quartet should play a direct role in conducting a referendum on the solution in both societies.

During his tenure, Olmert also pursued a bellicose policy toward regional players. He waged two wars, the first on Hizballah in Lebanon and the second on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israel failed in both wars to achieve the declared (deliberately vague, in the case of Gaza) political objectives, yet they both resulted in massive destruction, many massacres and thousands of civilian casualties. Richard Falk, the United Nations special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, described Israel's actions in Gaza as 'war crimes'. Israeli media have reported, in the last couple of days, that many Israeli soldiers publically confessed that Palestinian civilians where knowingly targeted during the war on Gaza. Furthermore, the war on Gaza was planned six months in advance and was not a reaction to any specific event happening immediately before the war.

Olmert's blockade on Gaza, before and after the December 2008 war, brought the Palestinian people there to the brink of human catastrophe. The extent of collective punishment against the Gaza Strip, the epitome of suffering, is underscored by a policy that prevented pasta (as in Italian macaroni) from reaching Gaza. I am still pondering the possible double use of pasta. What is the wisdom of pasta-less 'humanitarian' aid?

In his final days as prime minister, Olmert seemed anxious to conclude a deal with Hamas for the release of Israeli POW Gilad Shalit. Suddenly, however, Olmert decided that he would not go ahead with an exchange of prisoners because there were 'red lines' that no one should cross. It is not clear what these red lines are and why they appeared now. A final peace resolution will anyway mean closing the Palestinian prisoners' file and releasing them all. Despite Olmert's position, Haaretz reported that Hamas is still seeking continued, indirect negotiations for a prisoner exchange.

Ehud Olmert resigned because of corruption charges that he will continue to face after a new government is sworn in. The annals of history, however, will level different charges at him.

----- Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway teaches at al-Quds University in Jeruslaem. This article originally appeared at bitterlemons.org.