Kiss of death
By Uri Avnery
Clearing House' -- -- SINCE JUDAS ISCARIOT embraced
Jesus, Jerusalem has not seen such a kiss.
After being boycotted by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert
for years, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) was invited to the
official residence of the Prime Minister of Israel two
weeks ago. There, in front of the cameras, Olmert
embraced him and kissed him warmly on both cheeks. Abbas
looked stunned, and froze.
Somehow the scene was reminiscent of another incident of
politically-inspired physical contact: the embarassing
occurrence at the Camp David meeting, when Prime
Minister Ehud Barak pushed Yasser Arafat forcefully into
the room where Bill Clinton stood waiting.
In both instances it was a gesture that was intended to
look like paying respect to the Palestinian leader, but
both were actually acts of violence that - seemingly -
testified to ignorance of the customs of the other
people and of their delicate situation. Actually, the
aim was quite different.
ACCORDING TO the New Testament, Judas Iscariot kissed
Jesus in order to point him out to those who had come to
In appearance - an act of love and friendship. In effect
- a death sentence.
On the face of it, Olmert was out to do Abbas a favor.
He paid him respect, introduced him to his wife and
honored him with the title "Mr. President".
That should not be underestimated. At Oslo, titanic
battles were fought over this title. The Palestinians
insisted that the head of the future Palestinian
Authority should be called "President". The Israelis
rejected this out of hand, because this title could
indicate something like a state. In the end, it was
agreed that the (binding) English version would carry
the Arabic title "Ra'is", since that language uses the
same word for both President and Chairman. Abbas, who
signed the document for the Palestinian side, probably
did not envisage that he himself would be the first to
be addressed by an Israeli Prime Minister as
But enough trivia. More important is the outcome of this
event. After the imposed kiss, Abbas needed a big
Israeli gesture to justify the meeting in the eyes of
his people. And indeed, why shouldn't Olmert do
something resounding? For example, to release on the
spot a thousand prisoners, remove all the hundreds of
checkpoints scattered across the West Bank, open the
passage between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip?
Nothing of the sort happened. Olmert did not release a
single prisoner - no woman, no child, no old man, no
sick person. He did indeed announce (for the umpteenth
time) that the roadblocks would be "eased", but the
Palestinians report that they have not felt any change.
Perhaps, here and there, the endless queue at some of
the roadblocks has become a little shorter. Also, Olmert
gave back a fifth of the Palestinian tax money withheld
(or embezzled) by the Israeli government.
To the Palestinians, this looked like another shameful
failure for their President: he went to Canossa and
received meaningless promises that were not kept.
WHY DID Olmert go through all these motions?
The naïve explanation is political. President Bush
wanted some movement in the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, which would look like an American achievement.
Condoleezza Rice transmitted the order to Olmert. Olmert
agreed to meet Abbas at long last. There was a meeting.
A kiss was effected. Promises were made and immediately
forgotten. Americans, as is well known, have short
memories. Even shorter (if that is possible) than ours.
But there is also a more cynical explanation. If one
humiliates Abbas, one strengthens Hamas. Palestinian
support for Abbas depends on one single factor: his
ability to get from the US and Israel things Hamas
cannot. The Americans and the Israelis love him, so -
the argument goes - they will give him what is needed:
the mass release of prisoners, an end to the targeted
killings, the removal of the monstrous roadblocks, the
opening of the passage between the West Bank and Gaza,
the start of serious negotiations for peace. But if
Abbas cannot deliver any of these - what remains but the
methods of Hamas?
The business of the prisoners provides a good example.
Nothing troubles the Palestinians more than this: almost
every Palestinian clan has people in prison. Every
family is affected: a father, a brother, a son,
sometimes a daughter. Every night, the Israeli army
"arrests" another dozen or so. How to get them free?
Hamas has a proven remedy: to capture Israelis (in the
Israeli and international media, Israelis are
"kidnapped" while Palestinians are "arrested"). For the
return of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Olmert will
release many prisoners. Israelis, according to
Palestinian experience, understand only the language of
Some of Olmert's advisors had a brilliant idea: to give
Abbas hundreds of prisoners as a gift, just for nothing.
That would reinforce the position of the Palestinian
president and prove to the Palestinians that they can
get more from us this way than by violence. It would
deal a sharp blow to the Hamas government, whose
overthrow is a prime aim of the governments both of
Israel and the USA.
Out of the question, cried another group of Olmert's
spin doctors. How will the Israeli media react if
prisoners are released before Shalit comes home?
The trouble is that Shalit is held by Hamas and its
allies, and not by Abbas. If it is forbidden to release
prisoners before the return of Shalit, then all the
cards are in the hands of Hamas. In that case, perhaps
it makes sense to speak with Hamas? Unthinkable!
The result: no strengthening of Abbas, no dialogue with
Hamas, no nothing.
THAT IS an old Israeli tradition: when there are two
alternatives, we choose the third: not to do anything.
For me, the classic example is the Jericho affair. In
the middle 70s, King Hussein made an offer to Henry
Kissinger: Israel should withdraw from Jericho and turn
the town over to the king. The Jordanian army would
hoist the Jordanian flag there, announcing symbolically
that Jordan is the decisive Arab presence in the West
Kissinger liked the idea and called Yigal Allon, the
Israeli foreign minister. Allon informed the Prime
Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. All the top political echelon -
Rabin, Allon, the Defense Minister Shimon Peres - were
already enthusiastic supporters of the "Jordanian
Option", as were their predecessors, Golda Meir, Moshe
Dayan and Abba Eban. My friends and I, who, on the
contrary, advocated the "Palestinian Option", were a
But Rabin rejected the offer categorically. Golda had
publicly promised to hold a referendum or elections
before giving back even one square inch of occupied
territory. "I will not call an election because of
Jericho!" Rabin declared.
No Jordanian Option. No Palestinian Option. No nothing.
NOW THE same is happening vis-à-vis Syria.
Again there are two alternatives. The first: to start
negotiations with Bashar al-Assad, who is making public
overtures. That means being ready to give back the Golan
Heights and allow the 60 thousand Syrian refugees to
return home. In return, Sunni Syria could well cut
itself loose from Iran and Hizbullah and join the front
of Sunni states. Since Syria is both Sunni and
secular-nationalist, that may also have a positive
effect on the Palestinians.
Olmert has demanded that Assad cut himself off from Iran
and stop helping Hizbullah before any negotiations. That
is a ridiculous demand, obviously intended to serve as
an alibi for refusing to start talking. After all, Assad
uses Hizbullah in order to put pressure on Israel to
return the Golan. His alliance with Iran also serves the
same purpose. How can he give up in advance the few
cards he holds and still hope to achieve anything in the
The opposite alternative suggested by some senior army
commanders: to invade Syria and do the same there as the
Americans have done in Iraq. That would create anarchy
throughout the Arab world, a situation that would be
good for Israel. That would also renovate the image of
the Israeli army that was damaged in Lebanon and restore
its "deterrence power".
So what will Olmert do? Give the Golan back? God forbid!
Does he need trouble with the 16 thousand vociferous
settlers there? What then, will he start a war with
Syria? No! Hasn't he had enough military setbacks? So he
will go for the third alternative: to do nothing.
Bashar Assad has at least one consolation: He does not
run the risk of being kissed by Olmert.
Uri Avnery is an Israeli author and activist. He is
the head of the Israeli peace movement, "Gush Shalom".