The rift between a beleaguered prime minister and a grieving novelist mirrors the division confounding Israel. Can the two men overcome the differences that separate them? Can Israel overcome its paralysis to make the hard choice necessary for its survival as a Jewish democracy?

The prime minister of Israel should be able to muster an argument for the necessity of his country without forecasting a Holocaust in America. His was a careless and cynical statement, one that supports the notion that he is not Israel’s deepest thinker. And yet his record presents an obvious contradiction. On one crucial issue, Olmert is credited by many of the most doubting Israelis with sincerity and thoughtfulness: his newfound belief that the dream of a Greater Israel—one that incorporates the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights—is dead, replaced with the recognition that the land must be split between a Jewish democratic state and an Arab state. This sort of transformation is as rare in Israeli politics as it is in American politics. “His willingness to express his new convictions and to speak about them explicitly is both bold and calculated,” one of his foremost critics, the Ha’aretz political columnist Ari Shavit, told me.

Olmert is not the only one to undergo this transformation; an entire generation of Likud politicians, protected by the shade cast by the great fighter and Likud apostate Ariel Sharon, has embraced the argument that the occupation threatens Israel’s Jewish future.

I asked Olmert whether there was a moral dimension to his desire to exit the West Bank, and I made reference to a song of his childhood, written by Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism. The revisionists are the ideological ancestors of the Likud Party. The song refers to the shtay gadot, or two banks, of the Jordan River: “The Jordan has two banks, and both are ours.”

“I would have loved to have shtay gadot!” Olmert said. It was not, as I first thought, an unconsidered outburst. He won’t call the dream of both banks immoral or destructively utopian, because it is a dream that many Israelis believe is just. “If there had been a 10 percent or 15 percent minority which is not Jewish there, then it would have been legitimate. But you don’t come to a majority and say to them, ‘Listen, we deprive you of your right to self-determination and at the same time we won’t provide you with the natural right of equality and equal votes.’”

“At the end of the day, it was about demography,” he said. “We couldn’t do it.”

The new leftists—or new realists—find justification for their position in the earliest history of Zionism. “Go back to the Basle program of 1897, the first Zionist Congress,” Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Sallai Meridor, told me. Meridor and his brother Dan, who was a minister in the government of Menachem Begin, abandoned their belief in untrammeled settlement several years ago. “Herzl asks Nordau”—Max Nordau, the essayist and critic who served as his deputy—“to come up with one sentence of what Zionism is to achieve. He wrote that Zionism is meant to create for the Jewish people a homeland in the land of Israel, assured by international legitimacy. One sentence, the whole story. It’s about Jewish people, about defining the community of Jews as a nation, one in the family of nations. Second, it’s not a state for all citizens, but for the Jewish people. Third, it’s in the land of Israel, but not necessarily all the land of Israel. And it has to be secured by international legitimacy.”

Israel’s flagging international legitimacy is one of Olmert’s preoccupations. In an interview with Ha’aretz in November, he said, “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses and we face a South African–style struggle for equal voting rights [among Palestinians of the occupied territories], then, as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.” He went on to say, “The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us, because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents.”

As a young Knesset member of the Likud Party, Olmert was not nearly so concerned about Israel’s international reputation. He voted against the ratification of the Camp David Accords with Egypt, which had been negotiated by the leader of his party, Menachem Begin. Today, he says Begin was right. “He was smarter than I was.” If he were alive today, Olmert said, Begin would support an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. “Menachem Begin understood by 1977 that we couldn’t incorporate Judea and Samaria [the biblical names for the West Bank] into the state of Israel. We can’t do it, and therefore he did not do it.”

What Olmert failed to mention was that Begin himself accelerated the process of settling Israelis in the West Bank, and was in particular a zealous supporter of Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful), the near-messianic group that seeded the West Bank with Jewish settlements. Today, the settlers are a small but influential political constituency (there are 200,000 settlers in the West Bank—a majority of whom moved there for economic, rather than ideological, reasons—and another 200,000 in the eastern suburbs of Jerusalem), and they have deployed an effective argument against expulsion: Ariel Sharon’s forced removal of 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip three years ago, undertaken unilaterally, resulted not in peace but in a barrage of rocket attacks by Hamas on southern Israel, followed by a continuing Israeli military response.

“I’m not saying ‘I told you so,’ but I told you so,” the settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein said not long ago when I saw him at Migron, a settlement outpost near Ramallah. Migron is “illegal,” built without the approval of the government, but even the illegal outposts—there are more than 100—are in no danger of imminent evacuation. Olmert removed one, called Amona, in February 2006; more than 200 people, including two Knesset members, were hurt in the riot that accompanied the demolition, and Olmert appears wary of a repeat performance.

Like Begin, Olmert once was a friend of the settlers. I asked him why the country only recently awoke to the threat the settlements pose. He bristled. “First of all, this is something that must be understood with humility and compassion,” he said. “In 1948, we achieved independence with a divided Jerusalem, with the parts of Jerusalem that were the essential ingredients of the collective Jewish memory and something that we yearned for, for thousands of years, not in our hands. In 1967 came the fulfillment, finally, of all the dreams of thousands of years by reaching the territories which are more intimately linked to Jewish history than anything else, particularly Jerusalem. So how can you wonder why we didn’t have the emotional power to restrain ourselves from wanting to realize the fulfillment of our dreams? It took us time to grasp the full complexity of the situation. But how can you wonder, at the beginning, why we had this enthusiasm?”

I noted that by late 1967, David Ben-Gurion, then an old man in retirement on his desert kibbutz, was arguing that Israel should find a way out of the occupied territories as soon as possible. Did Ben-Gurion lack Zionist fervor?

Olmert litigated the question instead of answering it: “He certainly didn’t say ‘Get rid of Jerusalem.’”

What led to Olmert’s conversion regarding the settlements was not only the realization—one that came to him over the course of three decades or so—that the permanent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza might undermine Israel’s security, but also a recognition that the Palestinians themselves had changed.

“Listen, let’s face it, I don’t know what my position would have been had a change not taken place on the other side as well. What the Palestinians say—not all of them, of course—some of the declared, elected leadership of the Palestinian people say, ‘I want to live in peace with Israel and I recognize Israel’s right to exist.’ They didn’t say it 40 years ago, they didn’t say it 30 years ago, 25 years ago.”

The Palestinians, however, are fighting a civil war. Gaza is under the control of Hamas, which is the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The West Bank is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, headed by the Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, who, over the past several months, has been negotiating a framework agreement for peace with Israel. All sides recognize that the Palestinian Authority would find it difficult to implement an agreement, but Olmert’s goal is to negotiate the parameters of a final settlement as a way, if nothing else, to strengthen the hands of Palestinian moderates against Hamas.

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, published this year in paperback. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.


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