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Olmert and Haniyeh: The Mirror Image Prime Ministers

Guardian UnlimitedThe Israeli and Palestinian Prime Minsters, Ehud Olmert and Ismail Haniyeh, have much more in common than either would feel comfortable contemplating.  Olmert and Haniyeh had back-to-back opinion pieces in the Guardian on June 6th, and I doubt much would have been achieved had they met face-to-face instead.  Not at first, at least.  But reading their respective comments one could discern the outlines of a route to navigate, not so much a flowery path, as a thorny accomodation between the two.

Neither Olmert nor Haniyeh win any prizes for national contrition or introspective self-criticism. Haniyeh Both indulged in a culture of wallowing in their respective national sufferings, and swelling with great pride at their nations' resolve.  The inherent structural naysaying, of course, resided with the other, and the solutions were to be found in what the other had to do.  This was all to be expected and even healthy up to a point.  Olmert and Haniyeh are not from the moderate or pragmatic camps in Israeli and Palestinian politics, their narrow nationalism is instinctive.  When berating the world for having abandoned their respective nations at critical moments, Olmert and Haniyeh actually sounded like a mirror image of one another.  In reflecting back on 1967, the Israeli Prime Minster bemoaned, "we stood alone."  In contemplating the settlement enterprise, the Palestinian Prime Minster accused "the world's most powerful states" of refusing "to ensure respect for international law."Olmert

Yet there was just enough common ground for these back-to-back Guardian comments to actually offer a way forward.  Call me an irrepressible optimist, but, when it came to addressing the substance of what has to happen next, Olmert and Haniyeh gave us something to work with.  Of course, neither leader may be around within a very short period of time, given all the political uncertainties, but it doesn't really matter, because, whatever names replace these two, they will still face the same basic equation.

Patching together a solution from Olmert and Haniyeh's slim offerings might look like this:  Olmert claimed that one could resolve the conflict on the same basis that "we were able to conclude a peace treaty with Egypt, exchanging land for a peace that has endured," and he expressed a readiness "to discuss the Arab Peace Initiative in an open and sincere manner."  Haniyeh stated that the unity government he heads "envisages the establishment of an independent state on all the Palestinian land occupied by Israel in 1967, the dismantling of all the settlements in the West Bank."  This, by the way, is very similar to a comment made by exiled Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal in an interview with Ian Black in the Guardian last week.

The model of the Egyptian peace that Olmert mentions was an Israeli withdrawal precisely to the 1967 lines, and indeed the evacuation of all settlements in the Sinai.  The Haniyeh reference to the 1967 lines is also significant, representing the apparent  current state of "Hamas talk" for acceptance of a two-state solution.  On land issues then, the gaps might seem to be quite small, and while I do not imagine that Olmert plans a full pullback and evacuation, the acceptable compromise position is rather obvious: a one-to-one land-swap regarding any settlement-induced modifications to the 1967 lines. 

On Jerusalem, the Israeli Prime Minister refered to "our eternal capital," implying little room for compromise.  Likewise, on refugees, the Palestinian Prime Minister called for "the recognition of the right of all Palestinian refugees to return to their homes."  Yet, in staking out these positions, the two leaders again hinted at the potential package deal arrangement - that the Israelis would have to recognize the reality of a divided Jerusalem while the Palestinians would have to recognize the impracticality of an actual refugee return.  These final trade-offs, obvious on the ground yet very painful, would have to be made while still respecting each sides' dignity and historical narrative.

Olmert and Haniyeh are not offering a recipe for festive peace-signings or gala ceremonies.  This would be a bludgeoning and hard process towards accomodation, but it can be eked out.

In their respective opinion pieces Olmert and Haniyeh were appealing to you -- the reader, the policy-maker, the world -- to judge who is the bad guy here (hint: the other guy).  But you -- the reader, the international community, the policy-maker -- do not have to play the role assigned to you by the two Prime Ministers.  Inadvertently, I believe, the international community is being invited to play a very different role -- that of the mediator.  Relentless, hard-headed diplomacy, and a public push for it may sound less soul-nourishing than boycotts and pledges of solidarity.  But it's what is needed to resolve this conflict 40 years too late.


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Comments (5)


It is common knowledge among informed observers of this conflict that despite their rhetoric Hamas had indicated for years that they would have agreed to a two-state solution.

Given what Israel is doing on the West Bank, however, the two-state solution died a while ago.


Anonymous and SLC:
You both make fine declarations of Haniyeh's criminal intent, and Olmert's seraphic motivations. I, for one, would be quite relieved to find any part of the world to provide such stark relief between good and evil, but when the cynics and relativists come to debate, I would like to have a little more than mere factual statements in my rhetorical arsenal. How do we convince the world that pure intentions are pure and evil men harbor wicked designs? It all seems so simple at first glance, but in our age of moral relativism it seems highly unlikely that we will be able to convince anyone without appealing to their own racist assumption that Arabs cannot be trusted.


SLC is right. Aside from the fact that they're both of the human species, these two don't have much in common. Olmert has a real and genuine interest in making peace. Haniyeh doesn't even want to come to the table, let alone make or accept an offer.


-Diving Jerusalem or giving it to the future Palestinian state doesn't seem like such a great idea any more:

-Haniyeh and peace? Think again. Here's a link to just a few of the many quotes of him speaking to his people, when he thinks others aren't listening:

an excerpt:
- From an interview in the Saudi daily paper Aljazeera (2 April ):

"As far as we're concerned, the issue of recognition of Israel has been settled once and for all. It has been settled in our political literature, in our Islamic thought and in our Jihadist culture, on which we base our moves. Recognition of Israel is out of the question. We have been advocating the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital and the return of the refugees. In exchange for all that, we will declare a truce, but no recognition of Israel."

One of the leaders (Olmert) is trying to make a realistic peace deal. The other is asking for Israel to stop existing. Do they sound equally respectable?

Bill W.:

Hamas cannot achieve that goal. No Arab state can threaten the integrity of Israel. Kill its citizens, yes, but Israel is more powerful than any of its neighbors. Netanyahu's claims of an existential threat to Israel are as much a lie as the neoconmen's claim that Al Qaida poses an existential threat to the US. The Islamists can never defeat the US or even remotely threaten her survival, that is why they engage in terrorism. Hamas is no different regarding Israel.

So, then why cannot Israel and the US (the greater powers) have the confidence of their power to make peace? Reading the Washington Post article today on a settlement in the West Bank, and its plans for massive expansion behind the "security barrier", how can their be any hope for peace? How can Israel claim to want a "partner for peace" (as the billboards in Washington's Metro stations claim) if she continues to build and expand settlements in the occupied territories?

The worst part about Ohlmert is that he is too small for the role he is trying to play. If Sharon was too cynical and ultimately uncommitted to a genuine peace, he was at least capable of implementing the limited vision he had. Ohlmert has neither the broad vision, nor the capacity to bring about a limited vision.

Where is the reason for hope?


I am afraid that I must take some issue with Mr. Levy on this column. The fact of the matter is that Mr. Haniyehs' vision of the future Palestinian State is all of historic Palestine from the Jordan River to the sea. Mr. Haniyeh, as with all such terrorists, talks nice when being interviewed by credulous western reporters but reserves his true intentions when speaking in Arabic to his supporters. Mr. Hanihey is not the mirror image of Olmert, he is the mirror image of Meir Kahane.

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