Closeup/The World

This year in Jerusalem

Israel on the eve of a make-or-break election

Michael Enright May 2 1977
Closeup/The World

This year in Jerusalem

Israel on the eve of a make-or-break election

Michael Enright May 2 1977

This year in Jerusalem

Closeup/The World

Israel on the eve of a make-or-break election

Michael Enright

They call this place the good fence. The fence runs the length of the border between Lebanon and Israel but here, at the village of Metulla in Northern Galilee, there is a gate. And each morning at six, the gate opens to allow into Israel Lebanese civilians who come to buy goods, to work or to receive medical attention for themselves and their children. By this spring the fence had been open for little more than a year. It came about quite by accident. Maronite Christians, living in the south of Lebanon, were cut off from normal supplies of food, fuel and even water during the bloody Lebanese civil war. They came to the fence, pleading for medical care, for food, for clothing. Gradually, the number of Lebanese grew. First ambulances, then mobile clinics were positioned by the Israelis at Metulla and at two other points along the fence. Later, the Israeli army allowed some Lebanese to take on jobs in Metulla and neighboring towns. Recently, as a result, there were about 600 Lebanese civilians working in Israel, crossing the fence each morning, earning Israeli wages but paying no income tax. Medical care is free. Altogether, it is a remarkable phenomenen. For three decades, Lebanon, with its large Muslim population, had been firmly sealed off from the neighboring Jewish state of Israel. Now, in the early spring, with wild flowers beginning to dot the hills, a door has opened between them. And the hope in Israel this year, with a crucial national election looming this month,

is for more doors, for more openings—and perhaps ultimately for peace with all of Israel’s Arab neighbors.

This morning, traffic at the good fence is light. Mothers with babies and small children have come to see a doctor and a nurse. A Lebanese businessman has come over to buy some Israeli goods. About 100 feet back from the fence is an Israeli machinegun post, manned by two young soldiers who scan the far hills with binoculars. On a ridge, perhaps two miles away on the Lebanese side, is the ruin of an ancient crusaders’ castle. Inside that castle are Palestinian AÍ Fatah guerrillas.

The small triangle of land stretching north and east of Metulla is called Fatahland. In the beginning of the good fence, the terrorists shelled the fençe with Sovietmade Katyusha rockets to discourage the villagers from crossing. And on this day, one occasionally could still hear the sound of rifle and small arms fire from the Lebanese hills as Lebanon’s civil war lingered on. Major Shlomo Krebs, our military escort, says quite casually: “By the way, if anything should start, just duck down be-

hind the sandbags and stay there.” But on this hot, airless day, nothing happens. Three Lebanese soldiers, an officer and two infantrymen, come through the gate and shake hands with the Israeli officer in charge. The Israeli asks the Lebanese privates for their pistols which he turns over to the Lebanese captain. On this side of the fence, only Lebanese officers can carry sidearms.

The nurse here, Wana Hend, grew up in a nearby Lebanese village and formerly worked in a Beirut hospital. “We get many, many sick children who are brought over by their parents,” she explains. “Over there they can get nothing, on this side we can at least do something.” During the last 10 months, more than 20,000 Lebanese civilians have been treated at the Israeli clinics. Today, a tank truck pulls up beyond the fence and Lebanese workers attach a hose to an Israeli water pump. The water is for nearby villages that do not have the fuel needed to pump their own water. “When you look into their faces,” says Krebs, nodding toward some young Lebanese girls, “you get the impression that they’re coming to a family picnic.”

The lobby of the Tel Aviv Hilton is awash with North American tourists. In

early April it is virtually impossible to get a hotel room anywhere in Israel because of the flood of visitors for the Passover festivities. For the rich, the Hilton is a comfortable starting point. A few days here to adjust to jet lag and culture shock and then the buses move off to Haifa, Jerusalem and Galilee. This year, Israelis are expecting more visitors than ever. Inside the Hilton it could just as easily be Miami Beach as Tel Aviv. One can buy buttons that say I CLIMBED MASADA or I PRAYED AT THE

WESTERN WALL. The decor is Naugahyde modern wrapped in a California gaudiness.

Coming around a corner, I literally bump into former Prime Minister Golda Meir. There are muttered apologies. (Is there any other nation of this size with so many immediately recognizable politicians—Meir, Moshe Dayan, the late David Ben-Gurion, former foreign minister Abba Eban and so many others?) These days Golda Meir lives in a Tel Aviv suburb and makes forays to the hotel to address visiting Jewish groups. She is Jewish grandmother to the world and today she moves through the lobby like a Milwaukee schoolteacher (as she once was) on holiday. Her face, seemingly carved in soapstone, is benign, strong and resilient; it says that she has been through a lot. Later, in the elevator, two Jews, one young and French, the other middle-aged and conspicuously American, get to chatting. The American says: “Did you see her, did you see Golda down in the lobby?” The young Frenchman laughs pleasantly: “No I didn’t. Perhaps if she were 50 years younger and pretty, I would have recognized her.” This perturbs the American, who retorts: “Yeah, well, if she was 50 years younger, you wouldn’t be here.”

Israel in the spring of 1977. An unsparingly moody country, it is alternately confident, cautious, anticipatory, fatalistic, but never resigned nor submissive. Nearly everyone you talk to here agrees that 1977 is a pivotal year for Israel one way or another. After four wars in 29 years of independence and the insistent pressure of always living on the edge of new hostilities, there is a subtle feeling that this year there will be movement toward some kind of peace between Israel and her neighbors.

Israelis want some harbinger of peace so they can get on with the complex business of living ordinary lives. The euphoria that was generated by the Six-Day War of 1967, exploded in the earthquake of near defeat during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and was revived only briefly after last July’s raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda to rescue hijacked Jewish airline passengers. There is a sensation, perhaps born of hope as much as anything else, that this year

peace is within reach. One British diplomat is painfully blunt about the national mood: “If 1977 fails and there are no new moves toward peace, then war is inevitable, but that’s like saying day follows night. The Israelis are fatalistic over the fact that if everything fails, there will be another war, which they will undoubtedly win but at an increasing cost in the lives of their young. They know there will be no more Six-Day Wars for them.”

For the ruling Labor Party, tarnished by a string of scandals and internal upheaval, 1977 will be politically a make or break year. On May 17, Israelis go to the polls in what was being viewed as the most important election in the nation’s history—and one complicated immeasurably by the political disgrace in April of Premier Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin was forced to step down as his party’s candidate for the prime ministership after it was discovered that his wife had maintained an illegal bank account in Washington, DC. Rabin himself was listed as co-signer of the account. It is contrary to Israeli law for any citizen to hold foreign currency at home or abroad without the Treasury’s permission; Rabin was fined $1,500 and his wife, Leah, a total of $27,000. Hastily retrenching, the Labor Party named Defense Minister Shimon Peres—a longtime political oppo-

nent of Rabin’s—as its new candidate for premier, after Peres succeeded in fending off a political challenge by Foreign Minister Yigal Allon.

The Rabin affair was only the latest in a string of scandals that have beset the Labor Party, which has ruled Israel since 1948 in consort with various smaller splinter parties. In January, Abraham Ofer, the nation’s housing minister, shot himself on a Tel Aviv beach after newspapers hinted openly at embezzlement of funds during the time he headed a large construction company. Then in February, Asher Yadlin, a prominent member of the Labor Party and Rabin’s nominee to become head of the Bank of Israel, was sentenced to five years for accepting bribes; there were suggestions that some of the money Yadlin received found its way into Labor’s campaign funds.

The Labor Party under Rabin was in trouble in other areas as well—both for putting forward a foreign policy that confused and disenchanted Israelis and for presiding over an economy that seemed largely out of control. The economy is ravaged by a hyper-inflation that last year raced ahead by 35% and this year will still be more than 30%. Prices are roaring skyward: a loaf of bread costs 30% more today than it did six months ago. Drivers pay more than two dollars a gallon for gasoline. A color television set here costs the equivalent of $1,000. The Israeli pound is devalued almost monthly, driving up the

cost of imports. On top of that, there is Israel’s staggering national debt—at six billion dollars the highest per capita in the world. Israelis are already the most highly taxed people in the world with 71% of the country’s national income derived from taxes. An Israeli earning $13,000 a year is taxed at more than 60%. Then there are the strikes—telephone operators, bank clerks, longshoremen, truckers, everyone within reach of a picket sign seems to be on strike at some point. The traditional restraint of organized labor, a kind of social contract in which labor cooperated in order to help build the Jewish state, appears to have evaporated. Israelis want to live at North American standards—but that is a condition their economy will not support. They try anyway. “The secret,” says one Israeli worker, “is to live on next month’s income.” “The fact is,” says a prominent Tel Aviv businessman, “that we consume three meals a day and produce only two, the third meal is bought with borrowed money.”

Israel is a series of constantly blurring and refocusing images that come and go with diminishing degrees of clarity. Time frames jump back and forth with unsettling frequency. You can talk to an old Arab guide at the ruins of ancient Jericho for almost an hour, listening to him describe in enormous detail the antique city, which for him is almost a living thing. Then he will suddenly tell you he has a son

who works in Toronto for a soft drink firm. Or on the road to Afula, a village in the north, you come across a black tented Bedouin camp. The children play in the fields with a few goats while the women in carefully decorated dresses gather wood. The men have thousand-year faces with fearsome eyes. Indifferent camels stand near the tents. But somewhere there is the sound of a television set. The Bedouin may live the life of their ancestors, but they have a TV run off the power of a car battery. Among the programs available: AII In The Family with Hebrew subtitles.

In Jaffa, one can listen to the highpitched prayers of the Muslim muezzin

calling the faithful to prayer from a 100year-old minaret, or Elvis Presley blaring from Abe Nathan’s Voice Of Peace Rock Radio Station, anchored off the beaches of Tel Aviv. (Commercial radio is illegal in Israel.) The contrasts collide and nothing is what it seems. Israelis live a frenetic life, yet on Shabbat (the Sabbath) everything stops. There are no buses and the streets are almost deserted in Jerusalem, except for American tourists out for the exercise. Shops and restaurants are closed; you cannot buy a newspaper or a magazine. Y et by sundown, the streets are busy and crowded again: in Jerusalem, along Ben Yehuda Street from King George V Street to Zion

Square, the sidewalks are packed with young people.

They say that Israel has a six-day work week with a three-day weekend; Friday is the day of rest for the Muslims, Saturday for the Jews and Sunday for the Christians. Everybody here starts work early. It is not uncommon for housewives to start their shopping at 7 a.m. and by eight most workers are in their offices and children in their classrooms. Schools and stores close at about 2 p.m. and reopen later from four to seven. There is not much nightclub life in the country’s major cities because Israelis much prefer to throw parties or drop in at friends’ homes unannounced. An Israeli party will usually start at 11 p.m. and carry on until two or three in the morning. Only foreigners arrive early.

And at every party, every dinner, the talk unfailingly turns to politics. The tiniest shift in Arab diplomacy in Cairo or Damascus is examined with the care of a cutter in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Gan diamond district. When Jimmy Carter talks of a “Palestinian homeland” or about “defensive borders” the political cryptographers study his statements with Talmudic subtlety, and then explain in tortured syntax what the White House means. “When they start moving into the past pluperfect for their explanations,” noted an American journalist, “I’m taking my holidays.”

To the North American, Israel’s form of democracy adds up to the worst of all worlds. Nobody has a directly elected representative. At election time, each party—

and there are more than a dozen—draws up a list of its candidates for the 120-seat Knesset. The electors in turn vote for a party list. The first 20 or so names on each list have a very good chance of winning. If a party gets 1 % of the vote, it gets 1 % of the seats. But there are no voting districts. The entire country is one big constituency. The result is that the citizen has no personal representative and the elected politician has no idea who voted for him. Because no party has ever been able to win a majority of seats, the Labor government has held on by bringing in splinter parties. It was one of these smaller groups, the National Religious Party (NRP) that precipitated the May 17 election. Last fall, the NRP, a devoutly orthodox political party, accused Rabin of desecrating the Sabbath by welcoming some new U.S.-built fighter jets at an air force base 15 minutes after sundown on a Friday night. In the resulting confidence vote, the NRP was expelled from the government, Rabin lost and the country was off to an election.

One man is trying to change the system. Yigael Yadin is a slight, spare man with a tanned bald head, a prominent sloping nose that looms over a brush moustache and small red hands toughened by years of scrambling around archaeological digs in search of biblical Israel. Last November, Yadin launched a party called the Democratic Movement For Change (DMC). The party already has more than 35,000 duespaying members and preelection polls gave the party between 18 and 23 seats in the next Knesset. If the DMC does indeed gain 20 or more seats, neither Rabin’s Labor alignment, nor the opposition coalition Likud bloc will be able to form a government without Yadin. He is thus pivotal, both to the fortunes of the Labor Party and perhaps to the country itself.

Yadin is an enormously popular figure with the average Israeli because he embodies the best Jewish tradition of the warrior-scholar. During the 1948 War of Independence, he was director of operations of the Haganah (army) and later became chief of staff of all Israeli defense forces. He is internationally recognized as the archaeologist who was instrumental in locating the ancient Jewish fortress of Masada and restoring and translating the Dead Sea Scrolls. His major campaign promise is electoral reform. He promises, if he is a power in the next government, to dissolve the Knesset and hold a general election under a representational balloting system. The DMC was the only party this year whose list of candidates was arrived at by open vote. Yadin told a group of foreign correspondents: “We are going to beat the present system through its own weaknesses, which we have set out to destroy.” On foreign policy, Yadin and the DMC do not differ noticeably from the Labor Party under Rabin. In this country there are hawks and doves. The hawks belong to the “not one inch” school of thought: no territory conquered by Israel will be given back

to the Arabs. The doves are willing to give back some or most of Sinai to Egypt and the occupied areas of the west bank of the River Jordan. But no one would give back to Syria the strategic Golan Heights, a stretch of mountains staring menacingly down over Israeli towns and settlements in northern Galilee. There has been some suggestion of creating a Palestinian State between the Arabs of the west bank and the refugees of Gaza. Y adin is opposed to a secular state along the Jordan river because it would, in his words, “germinate nationalism and be the seed of the next war.” In dealing with the Arabs, however, he believes in direct negotiations: “In a love affair, there is a world of difference between direct contact and indirect contact. Granted this is not a love affair, but if one wants results one must have direct negotiations.”

Arabs surround Israel, but there are also 540,000 of them living in Israel; they make up 15.2% of the population and by 1993 it is estimated they will number more than a million. Those living in the occupied lands—Israel calls them “administered territories”—want their own secular state. Stating the problem is heartrendingly simple: how do you reconcile the desire of these Arabs for self-determination with the deeply felt need of Israel to exist inside secure borders?

The family of Elias Freij has lived in Bethlehem for more than 1,000 years. He is mayor of the town and pro-Palestinian. A diminutive, compact and chunky man with deep brown eyes and a pudgy face, Freij speaks bluntly. “I, as an Arab and a man of this city, do not like the Israeli occupation, I do not like any occupation whether it is Israeli, American or French. We are a civilized people, a peace-loving people who wish to live in peace, to be free and to exercise the right of self-determination. I want to know who I am, what is my nationality, my state, the color of my flag and the color of my passport.”

Freij and his people, as Arabs, do not get involved in Israeli politics, but it is a certainty that they are on the side of the doves who are willing to negotiate the return of territory. “The Israeli leaders are not preparing their people for concessions,” notes Freij. “And there cannot be peace without concessions. They think they can keep all or most of the occupied territories and still convince the Arabs to sign a peace treaty with them.”

Listening to Freij, it is difficult to realize that Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, is less than 15 miles away; it could be across the seas. The two peoples of the land are eternally apart. The typical young Israeli, confident in his aspirations, his people and his state, fails utterly to recognize the same feelings when he sees them in the Palestinians of the west bank. Yet the same emotions and arguments are transferable from Jew to Arab; the Israelis want peace, secure frontiers and national self-determination—so do the Arabs. While the Arabs have often underrated the tenacity of the Jews, the Israelis have often underestimated the intensity of the motivation that drives the Palestinians.

In March, the wild flowers were out along the roads and the strawberries in full season. The beaches of Tel Aviv, Elat and Natanya were crowded with bathers. After a rainy, cold winter, spring had arrived and as the country moved into its ninth general election since 1948, Israelis had much to complain about. The Sephardic, or Western Jews, complain about discrimination by European Jews even though they outnumber them. The workers complain about wages that do not rise fast enough to meet the growing cost of living and businessmen complain about gouging unions whose workers under-produce. Newly arrived immigrants from North America complain that Israel is not the land of their dreams and their hopes, that it is too much like New Jersey or Illinois. And everybody complains about the taxes. It is therefore all the more remarkable that the underlying feeling persists that this is the year that will bring change, change in government perhaps, change in the stalemated search for peace. Entwined in those hopes lie the promise and the peril of Israel in the spring of 1977.