Say it with Flowers

Rejoice, Rejoice: the Foreign Minister has decided to set up a special team for dealing with the "core issues" of peace with the Palestinians.

Yes, indeed. In preparation for the Annapolis meeting, the Prime Minister has put the Foreign Minister in charge of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

You might well ask: Isn’t it natural for the Foreign Ministry to deal with foreign policy?

Well, it may be natural in other countries. In Israel, it is not natural at all.

Already in the first years of the state, the Foreign Office was the butt of jokes. A friend of mine composed a catchy jingle, that can be roughly translated as "The Foreign Office / is very important / Because without it / What would its officials do?"

The state was born in war. Its heroes were the army commanders. The architect of the state, David Ben-Gurion, laid the tracks on which the state has been moving to this very day. Until his last day in office, he was both Prime Minister and Defense Minister. He never bothered to hide his profound contempt for the Foreign Office.

The whole of that generation was party to this contempt. Real men, with a Sabra accent, went into the army, became generals and manned the Defense Ministry. Weaklings, with an Anglo-Saxon or German accent, went into the Foreign Office, became ambassadors and paper-pushers. The difference was there for all to see.

That also found expression in personal relations: Ben-Gurion tortured the first Foreign Minister, Moshe Sharett, whom he saw as a potential rival. And indeed, when Ben-Gurion decided in 1953 to retire temporarily to the desert settlement of Sdeh Boker, Sharett became Prime Minister. He paid for it dearly: when Ben-Gurion came back from his self-exile, he trampled on Sharett and, in preparation for the 1956 Sinai campaign, removed him altogether.

He turned the Foreign Office over to Golda Meir, but bypassed her, too. The Sinai-Suez campaign was prepared by the young Shimon Peres, the Director General of the Defense Ministry and Ben-Gurion’s admiring servant. He helped to organize the French-British-Israeli collusion for the attack on Egypt. In return for our readiness to support the French in their war against the Algerian insurgents, the French gave us the nuclear reactor in Dimona. All this behind the back of the Foreign Ministry.

Throughout the years, that’s how it went. The important issues in foreign relations were handled by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Defense Ministry, with the assistance of the Mossad. Our ambassadors around the world heard about it on the news.

This may not be a peculiarly Israeli way of doing things. These days, presidents and prime ministers conduct their own foreign policy. Quick flights, the international telephone and e-mail enable them to communicate among themselves. In almost all countries, foreign ministers are fast turning into glorified office boys (or girls).

In our country, this is especially pronounced, because of the central role the army plays in our national life. In the Israeli card game, one general outweighs ten ambassadors. The evaluations of Army Intelligence and the reports of the Mossad trump all the papers of the Foreign Office – if anyone reads those at all.

I could not help smiling when I read about Tzipi Livni’s decision to set up a peace staff.

51 years ago, one week before the Sinai campaign, I published an article entitled "The White General Staff", which became something like my flagship. It said that since the achievement of peace was the main task of our state, it was unacceptable that there was no professional body dealing exclusively with this matter. I proposed the creation of a special Peace Ministry. The Foreign Office, I maintained, was unsuited for this task, since its main function was to wage the international struggle against the Arab world.

To popularize the idea, I said that as a counterweight to the "khaki General Staff", which prepares war operations, we needed a "white General Staff", which would prepare for peace opportunities. Much as the army General Staff prepares contingency plans for any military situation, the white General Staff should prepare plans for peace operations. This staff should be composed of experts on Arab affairs, diplomats, psychologists, economists, intelligence specialists and so forth.

Ten years later, I repeated this proposal in a Knesset speech which was later included in an Israeli anthology of important speeches. I repeated the observation that in all the huge government apparatus, with its tens of thousands of employees, there were not even a dozen officials charged with working for peace.

This was preceded by a rather amusing episode. Eric Rouleau, one of the most distinguished French journalists in Middle Eastern affairs, arranged a secret meeting between me and the Tunisian ambassador in Paris. That was after Habib Bourguiba, the legendary president of Tunisia, had made a historic speech in Jericho, in which he, for the first time, called on the Arab world to make peace with Israel. I asked the ambassador to encourage his president to continue with this initiative. The ambassador proposed a deal: Israel would use its influence in Paris to urge the French to improve their relations with Tunisia (which were at a low) and in return Bourguiba would renew his initiative.

I hastened home and arranged an urgent meeting with the Foreign Minister, Abba Eban. He brought along Mordechai Gazit, the chief of his Middle East department. Eban listened to what I had to say and answered with a few non-committal words. When he had left, Gazit burst out laughing.

"You have no idea how this place works," he said, "If Eban had taken this thing seriously and ordered his office to prepare a report on French-Tunisian relations, they wouldn’t be able to find anyone to do the job. In all the Foreign Office there are perhaps half a dozen people dealing with Arab affairs."

So I made that speech, and later talked about it with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, and later with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin – but nothing came of it. That’s why I allow myself to be a bit skeptical about the initiative of Ms. Livni.

Lately, the former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, has published a book about the profession of diplomacy. He asserts that the great Foreign Ministers had a much larger impact on history that the kings and captains of armies.

I am not one of the great admirers of this man, who is of my age and, like me, was born in Germany. Sometimes I just wonder what would have happened if his father had emigrated to Palestine and my father to America. Would I have turned into an ego-maniac and war criminal, and he into an Israeli peace activist?

But I am quite ready to accept the central thesis of the book: that no serious foreign policy is possible without a clear and consistent long-term aim.

The Israeli Foreign Minister has no such aim. She speechifies, declares and announces, but it is not clear where she would be leading our foreign policy, if she were indeed allowed to lead it. After two years on the job, her political image is pale and blurred.

One time she tries to outflank Olmert on the left, another time on the right. One day she speaks about the necessity to deal with the "core issues", another day she says that the time is not ripe for a final settlement. She supported the recent Lebanon war, but now she criticizes it severely. After the publication of the Winograd commission’s interim report, she called for Olmert’s resignation, intending to replace him herself, but when that little putsch-attempt collapsed, she remained in his government and continues to bear responsibility for his actions and omissions.

Livni detests Olmert, and Olmert detests Livni. True, both come "from the same village" – Ehud’s father and Tzipi’s father were both senior members of the Irgun. Both were raised in the same right-wing political atmosphere, both drank from the same fountain. When Livni’s mother died a few weeks ago, they stood next to each other at the funeral and sang the Betar anthem: "Silence is garbage / Sacrifice blood and soul / For the hidden glory…" (Betar, which still exists, was the right-wing youth movement that gave birth to the Irgun.)

The mutual loathing between Ben-Gurion and Sharett and between Rabin and Peres is now repeating itself. These relationships have a major impact on policy, in accordance with the famous dictum of Kissinger: "Israel has no foreign policy, it has only a domestic policy." (It seems to me that this is true for most democratic countries, including the US.) Israel’s foreign policy emanates from domestic considerations: Olmert is determined to survive at any cost. Since his government includes extreme right-wing and even fascist elements, any real movement towards peace would lead to its dissolution.

If a Government has no long-term aim, how does it conduct policy? Kissinger does not seem to give an answer to this. I do have one: When there is no conscious aim, an unconscious one takes control, a pre-existing aim that provides a direction as if by itself, by force of inertia.

The genetic code of the Zionist movement leads it to struggle with the Palestinian people for the possession of the whole of historical Palestine and the expansion of Jewish settlement from the sea to the river. As long as it is not supplanted by a national resolution to adopt another aim – a clear, open and long-term decision – it will go on following this course.

No such resolution has matured and been adopted. The ministers speak about other possibilities, babble about the "Two-State Solution", toss around diverse slogans, make declarations and issue statements, but in reality, on the ground, the old policy continues unabated, as if nothing has happened.

If another decision had been adopted, the change would have been far-reaching – from the "body language" of the government to the tone of its voice. At present, the tones that make the music are still those of the Betar anthem.

Is there any evidence of Olmert’s intention not to take any serious step towards peace? Indeed there is. It is his decision to put Tzipi Livni in charge of the contacts with the Palestinians.

If Olmert wants to achieve a historic breakthrough, he will make sure he himself gets full credit for the achievement. If he turns it over to his rival, that means it has no chance at all.

Last week, the Dutch government approached the Israeli Foreign Office with a request to enable Palestinian flower-growers in the Gaza Strip to export their wares to the land of the tulips.

Tzipi Livni, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, was unable to fulfill this modest request. The army forbade it.

Contrary to the well-known expression, they do not believe in saying it with flowers.