Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Home truths

Frederik Willem de Klerk, 62, was the last President of apartheid-era South Africa (1989-1994). Despite his status as a stalwart of the National Party, De Klerk courageously stepped forward to engineer the end of South Africa's racial segregation policy. He supported the transformation of South Africa into a multi-racial democracy by entering into the negotiations that resulted in all citizens, including the country's black majority, having equal voting and other rights. In 1993 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela for his role in ending apartheid.

Could it be that Israel has now found its own F. W. de Klerk in Ehud Olmert, the outgoing prime minister? Born in 1945, Olmert formerly served as mayor of Jerusalem. On January 4, 2006 he became caretaker for the prime minister Ariel Sharon, who had suffered a stroke. After Kadima, his party, won the 2006 elections, and Sharon’s incapacitation became clear, he became the official head of government. In 2008, however, as a result of a legal entanglement on charges of corruption, he felt compelled to resign.

On September 28, 2008 Olmert gave an interview that boldly affirmed a number of home truths. These serve at long last to correct areas--some at least--in which the Israeli establishment has long been in denial. Edud Olmert holds that Israel must withdraw from nearly all of the West Bank as well as from East Jerusalem if there is ever any chance of attaining peace with the Palestinians. Any occupied land it might seek to retain would have to be exchanged for the same amount of Israeli territory.

He also dismissed as “megalomania” any thought that Israel would or should attack Iran on its own to stop it from developing nuclear weapons, stating that the international community and not Israel alone was charged with handling the issue.

“What I am saying to you now has not been said by any Israeli leader before me,” Mr. Olmert told the newspaper Yediot Aharonot. “The time has come to say these things.” He said that the Israeli defense establishment had learned nothing from past experiences and that they seemed stuck in the mindset of the 1948 war of independence.

“With them, it is all about tanks and land and controlling territories and controlled territories and this hilltop and that hilltop,” he said. “All these things are worthless.”

He added, “Who thinks seriously that if we sit on another hilltop, on another hundred meters, that this is what will make the difference for the State of Israel’s basic security?”

Over the last year Mr. Olmert has publicly distanced himself from his earlier right-wing views and he did so again in this interview. As regards Jerusalem, he noted: “I am the first who wanted to enforce Israeli sovereignty on the entire city. I admit it. I am not trying to justify retroactively what I did for thirty-five years. For a large portion of these years, I was unwilling to look at reality in all its depth.”

He remarked that insistence on maintaining sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem, Israel’s official policy, would require including 270,000 Palestinians inside Israel’s security barrier. It would mean a continuing risk of terrorist attacks against civilians such as those carried out this year by Jerusalem Palestinians with front-end loaders.

“A decision has to be made,” he said. “This decision is difficult, terrible, a decision that contradicts our natural instincts, our innermost desires, our collective memories, the prayers of the Jewish people for 2,000 years.”

Up to this point the Israeli government’s policy on Jerusalem has been arrogantly to assert that the status of the city was beyond discussion. But Ehud Olmert made clear that the eastern, predominantly Arab, sector had to be yielded “with special solutions” for the holy sites.

Olmert also addressed the question of relations with Syria, acknowledging that Israel had to be prepared to give up the Golan Heights. In return, he expected that Damascus would change the nature of its relationship with Iran and renounce its support for Hezbollah, the aggressive Lebanese militia.

On Iran, Olmert reiterated that Israel must act within the framework of the international system, adding: “Part of our megalomania and our loss of proportions is the things that are said here about Iran. We are a country that has lost a sense of proportion about itself.”

Reaction from the Israeli right was predictable. In a radio interview Avigdor Lieberman, who leads the Yisrael Beiteinu party, claimed that Olmert was “endangering the existence of the State of Israel irresponsibly.” [What would endangering it “responsibly” amount to?---WRD]

In a related story, the New York Sun newspaper announced that, after a six-year run, it would close on September 30, 2008, amidst a historic week of financial losses in the American economy. When it debuted on April 16, 2002, it became "the first general-interest broadsheet newspaper to be launched in New York in two generations." The organ was the brainchild of Seth Lipsky, who had created an English-language version of The Forward, a long-standing New York Yiddish newspaper.

An earlier newspaper in New York, also named The Sun began publication in 1833 and merged with the New York World-Telegram in 1950. Other than their shared name, motto, and masthead, there was no connection between the current Sun and its namesake.

The newspaper attracted a number of bright young writers, who made it distinguished for serious coverage of the arts and literature.

It was better known, however, for its political views, which were right-of-center. In fact it was a haven for neo-conservatives. In keeping with this orientation it aggressively supported the state of Israel and the Iraq war. As Scott Sherman observed in its palmy days, The Sun is a paper “that functions as a journalistic SWAT team against individuals and institutions seen as hostile to Israel and Jews; and a paper that unapologetically displays the scalps of its victims.” The paper courted controversy in 2003 with a strident, unsigned February 6 editorial arguing that protestors against the Iraq War should be prosecuted for for treason.

The disappearance of The Sun is an encouraging sign that the times indeed are changing. Doubtless it will take a while longer for the New Republic, a venerable weekly that now follows a similar editorial line, to perish. When it does, that will be the occasion for rejoicing.


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