Grossman expresses his despair at Israel's 'hollow' leadership

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The Independent Online

With the eloquent passion of an Old Testament prophet, the Israeli novelist David Grossman has denounced Ehud Olmert's government for a failure of moral leadership that he said was undermining the vision of a Jewish state.

Addressing 100,000 Israelis on Saturday in the Tel Aviv square where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated exactly 11 years earlier for trying to make peace with the Palestinians, Mr Grossman insisted that Mr Olmert could not dismiss his words as those of a father grieving for his soldier son killed at the end of the war with Lebanon this summer.

"Of course I am grieving," he said, "but my pain is greater than my anger. I am in pain for this country, and for what you and your friends are doing to it."

Stressing he was not talking about Israel's conduct in the Lebanon war, he said: "One of the most disturbing feelings exacerbated by the war is that there is no king in Israel, that our leadership is hollow ... When was the last time the Prime Minister advocated or made a move capable of opening a new horizon for Israelis, or a better future?"

Mr Grossman railed against the apathy with which Israelis were reconciled to the failure of the peace process. While saying it was impossible to talk with the Hamas government, he urged Mr Olmert to appeal to the Palestinian people over the heads of their elected leaders.

"Appeal to the moderates among them, those who are opposed like you and me to Hamas and its path," Mr Grossman said."Speak to their deep wound, recognise their suffering ... Just for once, look at them not only through the sights of a gun and not beyond the closed barrier. You will see there a people that are tormented no less than we are, an occupied and oppressed and hopeless people. Look at the overwhelming majority of that miserable people, whose fate is linked to ours, whether we want it or not."

He was equally disparaging at the ease with which Israelis had accepted last week's appointment to the cabinet of Avigdor Lieberman, a Russian immigrant politician who advocates depriving more than one million Arabs of their Israeli citizenship. It was "a crude kick" to Israeli democracy, akin to appointing "a serial pyromaniac to manage the fire service", he said.

Mr Lieberman, a deputy premier in charge of "strategic threats", reiterated yesterday that the Arab minority had to be separated from the rest of Israel. "If we want to preserve the nature of Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state," he told the army radio station, "there is no other solution. I don't understand why the Palestinians deserve a state purged of every Jew, while we turn into a binational state in which more than 20 per cent of the population comprises minorities."

Israel, he said, should look to Cyprus, where Greek and Turkish Cypriots have lived on different sides since 1974, "as a model" for a future settlement. Mr Olmert said Mr Lieberman's comments represented neither his nor his government's views.

Mr Grossman's speech received front-page coverage and was broadcast live on television. Eitan Cabel, a Labour minister in Mr Olmert's coalition, said: "I haven't heard a speech like that in years. It ... expresses the feelings of large parts of our people."

Meanwhile, Mr Olmert announced yesterday that Israel would continue its military offensive in Gaza, which has killed at least 48 people since Wednesday.

* The Red Cross (ICRC) strongly criticised Israeli forces yesterday for killing two ambulance workers removing a body from a previous Israeli attack in Gaza. The Palestine Red Crescent Society's paramedics were wearing fluorescent jackets "clearly marked with a distinctive emblem conferring the protection of the Geneva Conventions" and the ambulance's flashing lights were visible from a great distance when they were hit by Israeli fire on Friday, said the ICRC.