He has long been known abroad as an Israeli novelist. But this weekend, David Grossman put fiction aside to become the voice of an Israel that is bruised, confused and yearning to see the horizon beyond the perennial war clouds.
Grossman delivered the central address at Saturday night's rally in memory of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking for a half-hour to a rapt crowd estimated at 100,000 people.
He brought with him not just an intellectual's gravitas but the sorrow of a bereaved parent: Grossman lost a son, Uri, in the final offensive of the summer war against Hezbollah, a war Grossman had urged the Olmert government to cut short.
But Grossman eschewed self-pity and called on Israelis to be mindful of a national dream of a Zionism bringing peace and progress and that seems, to many, to be slipping away.
"One of the most disturbing feelings exacerbated by the recent war was the feeling that in these days, there is no king in Israel, that our leadership -- our political and military leadership -- is vapid," he said.
"When was the last time that the prime minister advocated or implemented measures with the capacity for opening up a new horizon for Israelis, or a better future? When did he initiate a social, cultural project, inspired by a value, instead of just reacting frenetically to moves imposed on him by others?"
Speaking at the site of Rabin's assassination in 1995 by a far-right zealot opposed to his intended rapprochement with the Palestinians, Grossman painted a portrait of the late prime minister as a man who reluctantly engaged a historical enemy of Israel because he felt there was no alternative. Others, however, believe Rabin made a catastrophic mistake by empowering and even arming a Palestinian national movement that never took its peace commitments seriously and remained committed to Israel's destruction. Like Rabin, Grossman said, current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should make a peace offer to the Palestinians, bypassing their hard-line Hamas government. Israel also should not be deaf to diplomatic overtures from Syria, Grossman argued.
The remarks came as Israel waged a major military operation in the northern Gaza Strip aimed at stopping cross-border rocket fire by Palestinian terrorists. At least 40 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier have died.
Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar warned that the offensive could put the life of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza, at risk. But Olmert was unfazed.
"We have informed the world that we do not intend to countenance continued Qassam rocket barrages against Sderot and other surrounding Israeli communities," Olmert said at Sunday's weekly Cabinet meeting. "We will take the necessary measures to significantly diminish them and prevent terrorist operations. Thus we have said, thus we are doing and thus we will continue to do."
Critics have accused Olmert of trying to look tough in Gaza to make up for the failings of the 34-day war in Lebanon, which was launched after Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in a cross- border raid. The war ended without achieving the soldiers' return.
"Israel flexed an enormous military muscle, but what was revealed behind it was its fragility and the limitations of its capability," Grossman said. "Simple human compassion has the power of a natural element, particularly in a situation of deadlock and hostility."
Grossman's rebuke hit its mark with at least one member of the Olmert government -- Labor Minister without-Portfolio Eitan Cabel, who was attending the rally alongside Vice Premier Shimon Peres and other political notables.
"I haven't heard a speech like that in years, and it is important to listen to it because it expresses the feelings of large sectors of our nation. Even though he spoke harshly, we mustn't dismiss him and we mustn't ignore him," Cabel told Ma'ariv.
With his popularity waning, Olmert has surprised friend and foe alike by bringing Avigdor Lieberman into his government. Lieberman's right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party advocates annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank while ceding Israeli Arab communities to the jurisdiction of a future Palestinian state in what Lieberman describes as partition along ethnic lines.
His appointment prompted the resignation of a Labor Party minister, Ofir Pines-Paz. At the Rabin rally, Grossman described it as "the appointment of that recidivist pyromaniac to manage the fire-fighting service of the state."
Lieberman was quick to rebuff the remarks. In an interview with Israel's Army Radio on Sunday, he wrote off the rally.
"Instead of seeing an event of national reconciliation, we received obvious left-wing political fulmination," he said.
Olmert had no immediate comment on Grossman's critique. But a Rabin memorial speech given separately by the prime minister suggests he should not be discounted as a potential peacemaker. Speaking at the Knesset, Olmert urged Palestinians to abandon their hostility toward Israel before it's too late.
"We want to find a solution to the ongoing conflict between us," Olmert said. "For 44 years you have been trying to ignore reality. Look how bad your situation is. Think for a moment where you find yourselves. If you continue with terror and hate, and if you continue to press the trigger, it will be a pity, a pity. Bad and bitter will be your fate. Consider your moves very carefully."
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