Beechert: Israel, Peace and Protest

by Michael Beechert | 11/17/13 2:20pm

Last week, I was fortunate enough to get a seat at former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s lecture on the relationship between Israel and Palestine. Everyone with some sort of interest in international affairs should have been in attendance; the opportunity to listen first-hand to the opinions and policy prescriptions of a former wartime leader, particularly one from such a crucial nation, does not present itself very often. So I would firstly like to thank the Dickey Center for hosting Olmert, and for providing the Dartmouth community with the chance to hear him speak.

Olmert, who enjoyed a reputation for his strong political presence while serving in the Israeli government, did not disappoint. He was animated, forceful and captivating. His ideas were earnest, driven and grounded in a sincere sense of duty to Israel and to humanity. Olmert’s focus and conviction were not surprising when one considers the circumstances of his tenure as prime minister — he weathered the poorly conducted and politically disastrous Lebanon War (and the 3 percent approval ratings that resulted from it) to remain in office for three years and regain some degree of popularity. The former prime minister was then charged with, and recently acquitted of, corruption in a messy affair that Olmert himself decried as a political witch-hunt. Personal opinions aside, it is hard not to recognize Olmert’s resiliency, and easy to see that the man is what an elected official should be — a natural leader.

But as is always the case with anything Israel-related, Olmert’s visit attracted a protest. The culprits, with their usual nuance, deemed Olmert to be an evil, apartheid-enforcing war criminal. I’ve already expressed my opinions of Real Talk and its sympathizers, so I won’t repeat myself by discussing them at length. In fact, I would like to commend the protesters for not shouting down Olmert at any point; they waited until the Prime Minister had finished his lecture to begin shrieking and chanting. The protesters then, after a brief period of time, filed out of the auditorium, and the event continued. The demonstration was a courteous one (as courteous, I suppose, as demonstrations can be) that simultaneously exercised and respected freedom of speech.

But while I could appreciate the manner in which the protesters chose to demonstrate, I was confused by their message. Their claim that Israel is a violent and inhumane oppressor followed a speech that basically called for peace through compromise. Throughout his talk, and while answering audience questions, Olmert stressed that concessions on Israel’s part might be necessary to bring about a lasting period of stability. Israelis and Palestinians, the Prime Minister stated, need to cooperate; in fact, he endorsed the concept of an autonomous Palestinian state. And when Olmert answered a question that accused him of using inhumane means to fight a war, he was correct to assert Israel’s right to defend itself by use of force. Olmert also expressed regret at the loss of innocent life, but rightly pointed out that Israel, too, has suffered at the hands of terrorism. These were not, as the protesters would have it, the ravings of a warmonger, but rather admirable and logical sentiments.

Meanwhile, the notion that Israel is an “apartheid state” is absurd. While Israel has, sometimes justly, received criticism for its treatment of Palestinians on humanitarian grounds, the implied parallel to pre-Mandela South Africa is simply incorrect. Apartheid South Africa was a regime where a white minority, by legalizing the subjugation of the black majority, codified racism. Israel, meanwhile, is a liberal constitutional democracy. The Arab minority living in Israel is afforded the same political, civil and legal rights as the majority Jews. Arabs can vote, can serve in the Knesset and although many are exempted from the draft, can serve in the military. So while many Israelis undoubtedly look down on Palestinians, prejudice and apartheid are two different concepts — the former, while unfortunate, does not constitute a form of government. The protesters would do well to reconsider their analogy.