Olmert, Barghouti, and Zeno’s Paradox

The following statement was not shouted by a long-time Peace Now activist into a megaphone outside the prime minister’s house:

You have to understand that a very large population of Palestinians lives here…

Take a 50-year-old man who lives here. A man who has spent most of his life – 40 years, since he was a 10-year-old child – under the watch of the Israeli soldier. The same soldier who carries a rifle, for all the most justified reasons in the world. But this is that man’s narrative. Take those who were stripped at the checkpoints only because there might be terrorists among them. Take those who stand for hours at the checkpoints for fear that a booby-trapped car could pass through…

No, those words were Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s, speaking to brigade commanders in the West Bank, telling them to show “understanding” and to “act wisely” in the time before Israel withdraws, so that they do not leave damage that “casts a shadow over our lives” for generations. So Ha’aretz reported on the weekend. I admit I checked to make sure I was reading correctly, and then checked to see if I’d forgotten the date and this was an April 1 spoof.

It wasn’t. That was really Ehud Olmert, whose father was in the Irgun and afterward represented the hard right in the Knesset, Ehud Olmert who went into politics around the time he started shaving and who represented parties irrevocably and eternally dedicated to Israeli rule of the Whole Land of Israel – until just over four years ago, when he called off eternity and declared he was in favor of giving up most of the West Bank, as long as we could do it unilaterally, imposing whatever borders we chose on the Palestinians. Even knowing he’d made that shift – more dramatic than Milton Friedman accepting socialism – I didn’t expect to hear him talking like a fiery Machsom Watch grandmother about the suffering of Palestinians at roadblocks.

In his talk to the brigade commanders, Olmert said, “I am a Jew who was raised all his life to believe that this is the Land of Israel” – meaning, really this is our homeland and it all belongs to us “and I haven’t changed my mind.” Except, as much as it hurts him, he knows we’re going to leave. And in the meantime, the brass should look at Palestinians as people.

Now, don’t start shouting at me – you there, the divestment activist in Ann Arbor with the angry twist of muscle near your mouth who knows that there is a good side and a bad one in every conflict, the bad one defined by having more power, and who is about to click on “comment” to tell me about Olmert’s crimes. I can outdo you at listing what Olmert has done wrong, down to the latest approval for new settlement construction. I know how weak Olmert can be. I once described him as “Willy Loman with a vision: a glad-handing hack politician who was ambushed one day by a truth” – the truth being that our rule of the West Bank will lead us first to apartheid (his word) and afterward to the end of the Jewish state.

I still assert we can learn two outrageously hopeful lessons from Olmert’s comments about the roadblocks: First, people are not stones, and politics isn’t geology. People can change, and accept difficult truths. Second, in doing so, they often hold onto the previous truth. Someone can believe that the whole land belongs to his side, and be willing to split it. The discovery that we have been made to live with such dissonance is reason to shout hallelujah.

To which I should add part of the letter that Marwan Barghouti sent to Peace Now’s 30th anniversary gathering last week (Arabic text here):

I, Marwan Barghouti, tell you that I, along with the vast majority of the Palestinian people, am ready for a historic conciliation based on the international resolutions which will ensure two states, Palestinian and Israeli, living side by side in security and peace, which will give our children and your children a life without the threat of wars and bloodshed.

Now, you, the other one, living in Efrat or wherever it is, with the angry twist of muscle near your mouth who knows that there is a good side and a bad one in every conflict, and that the Palestinians unlike the Jews are unchangingly, geologically steadfast in their beliefs, and who is about to click on “comment” to tell me about Barghouti’s crimes. I know. He’s in jail for murdering five Israelis. As leader of Fatah’s Tanzim during the second intifada, he was an advocate of violent resistance, willingly seduced by the old siren call of liberation through bloodshed, a strategy which failed both morally and politically by convincing many Israelis that there was no chance of peace. I have no doubt he believes that before the divine court of justice, not only Jenin but also Jaffa rightfully belongs to the Palestinians.

And nonetheless, he declares his desire to put aside divine right, live with dissonance and make peace with us.

True, there is still a substantial gap between Olmert’s conditions for peace and Barghouti’s conditions. But that gap is a narrow crack compared to the abyss that existed between Israelis and Palestinians a generation ago.

Sometimes it seems we are caught in a politicized rewrite of Zeno’s paradox: To get to peace, each side must first traverse half the distance to a compromise. Then it must traverse half the remaining distance, and then half of what is left, and therefore it is impossible ever to arrive. Motion itself is an illusion. Real life, however, has never cared about the sophistry of Zeno or other fanatics. It is possible to move, and possible to arrive.

12 thoughts on “Olmert, Barghouti, and Zeno’s Paradox”

  1. For a more reality-based view of these things, read this interview with Benny Morris:

    Here is a very important interview with Benny Morris in the Jerusalem Post. Many of you won’t like it, and I disagree with his pessimism but he brings out historical facts the “peace camp” has wilfully ignored for years. Here is the link:


    Here are a couple of excerpts:
    “Historians have tended to ignore or dismiss, as so much hot air, the jihadi rhetoric and flourishes that accompanied the two-stage assault on the Yishuv and the constant references in the prevailing Arab discourse to that earlier bout of Islamic battle for the Holy Land, against the Crusaders,” Morris writes. “This is a mistake. The 1948 war, from the Arabs’ perspective, was a war of religion as much as, if not more than, a nationalist war over territory. Put another way, the territory was sacred: its violation by infidels was sufficient grounds for launching a holy war and its conquest or reconquest, a divinely ordained necessity.”

    Nor, he adds soberly, “did this impulse evaporate with the Arab defeat.”
    But the Jewish community’s leadership, argues Morris, misapprehended the relentless jihadi passion, with dreadful, ongoing consequences. David Ben-Gurion was “a child of Eastern European social democracy and nationalism who knew no Arabic (though, as prime minister,” Morris writes acidly, “he found time to study ancient Greek, to read Plato in the original, and Spanish, to read Don Quixote)…” Simply put, Morris goes on, Ben-Gurion “failed fully to appreciate the depth of abhorrence anchored in centuries of Islamic Judeophobia with deep religious and historical roots.”


    So how, from his historian’s perspective, would Morris advise Israel to go about trying to secure its future?

    “I have no idea,” he said apologetically. “No idea. Hold on, I suppose. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, yet Israel has become better in many ways… in terms of the economy, freedoms, democracy. So apparently nations can manage under these kinds of circumstances. Maybe we can hold out.”

    Is there nothing Israel can do to try to change that jihadi mindset?

    “Again, I don’t know,” he replied. “The Arab world has been impervious to westernization – unlike say South Korea, Asia. Germany has changed. Other countries have turned liberal, Western in recent decades. The Arab world has moved in the opposite direction.”


    Lots of food for thought here.

  2. Excellent article Gershom.

    Y. Ben-David: I could quote encylopedias of opinion that seeks to paint Israel as equally and irrevocably determined to deny the Palestinian’s aspirations, and all equally ‘reality based’. Reinforcing this kind of idea, seeking to demonise and dehumanise Arabs and Palestinians–and claiming that it is ‘reality’–perpetuates the conflict as surely as any other action. This is not food for thought (which suggests an openness of mind) but is an effort to shore up prejudices.

  3. Mr Dornan,

    You simply ignored what Morris says. He says there can’t be any peace agreements, no matter what you or others may want. You are welcome to try to refute what he says , if you can, but history has proven him right.

  4. Mr. Ben David: I intend to agree and disagree with you and Mr.Morris . After spending three weeks in Israel recently and putting my peace- first “boots on the ground” and listened to Tel Aviv Jews ,Jerusalem Jews ,Jews and Palestinians in the so-called West Bank , your case that separate states is an illusion is a fact and I don’t see it being acheived in my lifetime.That doesn’t mean that the average Palestinian should not be treated with respect and dignity that all of Gods children should be given and vis-a versa.I saw little of that when I was there , in fact our United Methodist missionaries have been labled ” trouble makers ” for our work with the poor Palestinian and Arab Christians and harrassed by Israeli security. The Sabeel ecumenical conference is made up of members of most of the mainstream Christian denominations in the United States including our group. I have reported and have members of my tour group to our Junior United States Senator our impressions and the conditions for Christian Arabs and Palestinians both on an individual rights basis and economic condition are pathetic and the Israeli government perpetuates the situation.Our senator is also a Methodist

    I believe that my country should aid countries that really need our aid but those countries should give an accounting of where that money went and money should not be given to countries that really don’t need our money or have a less than acceptable human rights records I of course would name the majority of the Middle Eastern oil dictatorships,China and Israel which is a so- called democracy for the Israelies only

    As I stood on the banks of the Dead Sea on March 7 2008 I watched Israeli pilots in their “glide path” for landing their A17 Super Hornets I said to my assembled friends ” Hey! we don’t even have these aircraft in the Michigan Air National Guard ,we only have F-16Cs and Ds ,that are over 15 years old , ; how much of my tax dollars out of the close to 3 billion dollars we give to Israel yearly went for them?. It is our intent to lobby our Congressmen to consider cutting back on this yearly stipend . We the people have more right to the benefit of our hard earned dollars than the Israelies or for that matter the Iraqis who are sitting on their oil profits when our kids are getting killed (20 this month) ISRAEL’S ENEMIES DON’T HAVE TO BE OUR ENEMIES . 320,000 million Americans didn’t say the Palestinians are our enemy or even the “fruitcakes”in HAMAS

  5. Mr Hilborn:

    The bad economic situation of the Palestinians is due to the nature of the corrupt regime Arafat instituted on the Palestinians. Thus, Israel, especially Rabin and Peres is responsible in the sense that they foisted Arafat and his terror gang on the Palestinians. The restrictions on movement is a direct result of the terrorism that Arafat and his successors encouraged. Without that, there would have been no need for roadblocks and other restrictions. It is not in Israel’s interest for the Palestinians to have poor economic conditions, so to blame Israel is to address the wrong party.

    Regarding your proposal that military assistance to Israel be cut…well, this depends on how you look at the situation. If you take the line of so-called “progressives” like Tony Karon, Richard Silverstein, Phil Weiss and others, then you would say that the Middle East is inherently a peaceful part of the world. The Arabs have no aggressive intentions against Israel, would welcome living in peace with her, etc. All the problems are due to Israeli “aggression”. If you believe this, then your proposal to cut military assistance to Israel might work.
    However, there is another view, which is accepted by the majority in the US (and this is reflected in Congress) that the Arab/Muslim world harbors agressive intentions towards Israel (within whatever borders) and is quite prepared to use military force against her. For example, Ahmedinejad has repeatedly said Israel will be “eradicated”. Nasrallah and HAMAS also repeat this. Now, the “progressives” I mentioned above (Karon, Silverstein, etc) all say that, heaven forbid, Ahmednijead is NOT “threatening” Israel, he is simply stating a fact that “somehow” Israel will disappear, but that he certainly wouldn’t do anything to encourage that to happen, and that his nuclear program certainly has nothing to do with that and that he only has peaceful intentions towards Israel. However, I, and most other Israelis believe that these “progressives” are deluding themselves and that these people most certainly would use force against Israel, given the chance (Iran’s regime had no problem fighting for 9 years and throwing away hundreds of thousands of lives over a strip of desert in the Shat-al-Arab waterway). So then we ask, if this is indeed the case, what would the consequences of cutting military assistance to Israel be? There is a historical precedent…the period before the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel was heavily dependent on French aid, particulary for the Air Force. When Nasser started making aggressive statements against Israel, France stated quite openly that they were cutting off assistance to Israel and that Israel was on its own. As a consequence, Nasser decided to blockade the Straits of Tiran, figuring that Israel was weak and frightened and that he could get away with it. The rest is known. If the US starts doing the same, how can you know what the reactions of the states hostile to Israel will be? And don’t forget, the whole thing could possibly go nuclear. Thus, you have to take into consideration all possible consequences of politically significant actions like the ones you are suggesting.

  6. I’m willing to aid in Israel’s defense if I would think it would produce benefits to us on a monetary and elieviate the suffering I saw up close and personal.Israel doesn’t need our help to the denial of our people who need great amounts of help NOW. Some people in the media want us to buy our own BS . We are not really the richest country in the world. We are one of the least literate countries of the industrialized countries. Our healthcare system “sucks” and we have 37 million uninsured including 9million children.We have a infant-mortality rate of a third world country.We have the largest penal population in the world the largest portion being Black.We execute more so- called felons than any country (albeit legally) in the world.I am happy I was born here but I might say that if I was born in Israel ..It is just an accident I was born anywhere . Americans who proclaim “GOD BLESS AMERICA”to the exclusion of all of GOD’S other children make me puke. My favorite retort is ” GOD loves you without reservation,but he wants you to do better” That statement sends my right- wing friends into orbit and this one from Dr. Samuel Johnson ” patriotism! the last refuge of a scoundrel “

  7. Benny Morris is not a historian of the Palestinian people. His academic area of expertise is the Hebrew-language records of the Yishuv. Quite frankly, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s neither an Arabist nor a scholar of Islam. Just because he says things with firm conviction of his own rightness doesn’t mean they’re any more true than when Dick Cheney or George Bush says them.

    Just because someone is smart and academically competant doesn’t mean they’re qualified to talk about all topics.

  8. EH:
    G-d forbid! If we followed your counsel and only commented on subjects for which we are qualified, there woudn’t be any blogs, let alone “talk back” comments! Lighten up – nothing is more entertaining than pontificating on subjects for which we do not even begin to know how little informed we are.

  9. Mr. Ben David : I don’t think an entire people should be painted with the “broad brush ” of unenlighted leadership ; otherwise we Americans are really in big trouble.Arafat was a leader what kind of leader he was remains to be seen.John Kennedy is revered by many of my fellow Democrats as a great President. I can’t make that statement because there is no body of achievements of his to warrant “great”or even “very good” . Johnson accomplished most of the Democratic platform of 1960 and 1964.

    Judeophobia as a state policy can be traced to the Greeks who couldn’t stand the fact that the Jews had a higher level of culture and intellect and a society much older than they had. So when Christianity came along they incorporated it and packaged up to be disseminated throughout the soon to become Christian countries. For most of the last 2000 years Judeophobia was rare in the Near East .Yes ther were the isolated rulers who needed a”scapegoat” Active Judeophobia in the Near East as a government policy is of recent vintage probably starting in 1948 and it seems to be fostered by governments who want their people to dwell on religious emotional issues rather than their lack of individual freedom and economic deprivation. The Palestinian situation feeds right into their plans .The majority of these countries care little what happens to the Palestinians.They, as one Jordanian told me are a “pain in the ass” I think the Israelis would do well to work on a plan of “divide and conquer” The so-called Arab states don’t like each other but they hate the aryan Persians. The US has aided Iran greatly by taking out two of their big and costly enemies , Saddam’s Sunni Bathists and theTalaban Sunnis on the other border.Our stupid diplomacy with the Russians has given Iran another friend. Neither of the Democratic candidates are going to consider a confrontation with Iran and McCain knows that our military won’t go along with it. So with the EU getting cozy with the Iranians, the Americans not really willing to commit ,where does that put Israel? Resolve the problems with the “pains in the ass” swallow some pride and outmanuver the enemy diplomatically. The Iranians have old military equipment.Russia would love to sell them their latest MIGs and their excess naval stuff. There no question in my mind that the Israelis can beat the Iranians in the short run but I not convinced that victory will hold up in the long run. Jordan seems like the logical place to start.They share parts of the Jordan River with you and as a member of the Sierra Club and a resident of a Great Lakes state ,it was obvious to me that “water” is going to be the defining issue in the future not oil for these two countries. Start now on conserving the Jordan which to me living on Lake Michigan which is fed by rivers and streams would have a hard time qualifying as a river,but its all you have. A land without water can not sustain much of a population.I saw that some efforts were in place to conserve but you have to do better. Getting people together on issues that are common to both of you is better than dwelling on that which divide and maybe these festering problems can be worked out.Or you will end up in what “looney tones” Hagee calls the “rapture” along with his fellow freaks when the Big Guy comes down and everyone not converted to Christianity gets the boot.

  10. Oh, I’m all for commenting on any and all topics. Its just that Benny Morris is being dropped into a discussion as if he’s a relevant outside authority figure whose opinion on the topic at hand (peace, the relative statements of Olmert and Barghouti, whether either side is willing to make compromises, etc.) raises serious concerns that must be addressed.

    I’m saying he’s just another right-wing blowhard who adds neither intellectual heft, gravitas nor factual information and so I feel comfortable ignoring completely. On this matter. Were the topic say, Israeli army plans for evacuating or displacing Palestinians in 1948, I’d say he’s absolutely worth listening to.

  11. Y. Ben-David: There were some very good reasons for ignoring what Morris said: firstly it wasn’t especially novel and rather predictable and secondly these are exactly the kinds of things that always get said inside conflicts (such as Northern Ireland and South Africa). I had another reason for ignoring it, that to engage with it and quote the kinds things that critics of Israel say–equally grounded in reality, and equally predictable–would get the discussion nowhere. My only purpose for doing so would be to show you how counterproductive and foolish it is to meditate on these kinds of things. So I don’t address the content of what Morris has to say: either you will appreciate the point or you won’t. If you don’t there is no point in proceeding any further.

    The violence will have some chance of ceasing when enough people stop dehumanising and demonising those on the other side in the way that you and Morris are.

  12. Isn’t it telling that Bargouti refers towards recognizing an “Israeli” state (as opposed to a “Jewish” one)?

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