WORLD

‘There is no middle path’

A NEW ISRAELI GOVERNMENT WILL HAVE TO DEAL WITH HAMAS, WHICH CALLS FOR AN END TO THE JEWISH STATE

ANNA PORTER April 10 2006
WORLD

‘There is no middle path’

A NEW ISRAELI GOVERNMENT WILL HAVE TO DEAL WITH HAMAS, WHICH CALLS FOR AN END TO THE JEWISH STATE

ANNA PORTER April 10 2006

‘There is no middle path’

A NEW ISRAELI GOVERNMENT WILL HAVE TO DEAL WITH HAMAS, WHICH CALLS FOR AN END TO THE JEWISH STATE

WORLD

ANNA PORTER

The problem with democracy is that each citizen votes exactly as he or she wishes, making the results somewhat unpredictable. The voters of Israel—one of the few democracies in the Middle Eastproved that on March 28 when, contrary to expert opinion, they voted for a deeply divided parliament. Ariel Sharon’s new creation, Kadima, drawn from both the left and the right of Israeli politics, ended up with only 29 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Labor, at 20 seats, celebrated that they did not lose ground; the rightwing Likud, Sharon’s former stronghold, was practically wiped out at 12 seats, down from 38 in the last election; Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home), a relative newcomer led by the grim right-wing hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman, was rewarded with ll seats; Shas, the Sephardic religious party, got 12, and the new pensioners’ party, Gil, captured seven seats.

Now, before the mid-May deadline to form a government, bargains will be struck, positions will shift, portfolios will be offered and announcements will be made as Kadima leader Ehud Olmert, who has served as acting prime minister since Sharon was incapacitated by a massive stroke in January, attempts to put together a coalition. Haunting those efforts is the knowledge that the new government will have to confront the fallout from the Jan. 25 Palestinian election, in which voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots for the terrorist organization Hamas. For many Israelis, the question now is how—if at all—to continue the peace process when faced with

an entity that is openly committed to the destruction of the state of Israel.

Likud’s Natan Sharansky saw the vote as “a clear indication that voters have returned to the nationalist camp.” It’s a comment tinged with bitterness, given that many of his own supporters—including his fellow Russian immigrants—abandoned Likud in favour of Yisrael Beitenu, an even more right-wing alternative. I met Sharansky in his rather modest office in Jerusalem’s old German Colony neighbourhood. His life, his brilliant mind, his courageous stand against Soviet totalitarianism and survival of solitary confinement in the Siberian gulag, are the stuff of legend.

But here in Israel, he is just another politician.

“These elections,” he said, “are not about any individual party. They are about unilateral concessions to the Palestinians. I resigned from the government on May 2 because of [the pullout from] Gaza. Our onesided action has weakened the moderates in Palestine and strengthened the terrorists. Of course, we want peace and security, but how can we achieve that if the other side will not recognize our right to exist? If their primary aim is to destroy us? Look at the Hamas website: the only choice they offer us is between an immediate, or a slower, death.”

Sharansky is opposed to any kind of negotiations with Hamas, and says Israel should stand firm against pressure on this point. As for the Palestinian vote, he says it was “a mistake to put elections ahead of the democratic process.” His most recent book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror, is precisely about the definition of democracy as a tool to liberate people. “For Palestinians the choice was between corrupt terrorists and clean terrorists,” Sharansky says. “Hamas’s platform was cleaning house.”

Sharansky blames much of Likud’s poor showing on Benjamin Netanyahu, who served as finance minister in the Sharon government before quitting over the Gaza issue last year and then winning the Likud leadership in December after Sharon left to establish Kadima. “Netanyahu left the Knesset too late,” Sharansky says. “He was too busy with the financial portfolio to focus on the need to provide ideological clarity, to be firm about what we stand for and why.”

Netanyahu, pale and exhausted when he addressed Likud’s disappointed followers after

the first results came in, blamed Sharon for the losses.

Isaac Herzog, high on the Labor slate, had slept less than two hours when he talked to me after the votes were cast on March 28. Herzog will, undoubtedly, be one of the power brokers in the new parliament. Energetic, young and popular, the son of a former Israeli president, grandson of a chief rabbi, and an eighth-generation sabra—a Jew born in Israel—on his mother’s side, he is Israeli aristocracy. Despite his lack of rest, he was in a festive mood. “Our agenda will be social democracy,” Herzog said. “We need to improve the lot of our citizens, those on minimum wage, pensioners.” And yes, he sees a natural, obvious alliance with the pensioners’ party, whose sole objective is to safeguard the rights of the elderly.

Labor has always been at the forefront of seeking accommodation with the Palestinians. Even now, Herzog said, “We prefer a bilateral process.” But the Hamas victory has changed the equation somewhat. “At a minimum, before we make further concessions, they must recognize Israel, undertake to live by the agreements they sign, and cease terror.” Herzog’s former colleague in Labor, Avraham Burg, for more than 20 years a leading figure in Israeli politics and former speaker of the Knesset, sees the Palestinian situation somewhat differently from Sharansky and Herzog. “We cannot choose our negotiating partners,” says Burg, who has left politics. “They, the Palestinians, had an election, a democratic process—transparent, dynamic, with overwhelming participation. They chose Hamas. We may not like what they chose, but Hamas is what we have. So, let us negotiate. Unilateral withdrawal will provide Israel with only the illusion of security, but not the substance. You cannot ignore the people on the other side of the wall. Their anger, their suffering, is as real as ours.”

It is important to remember when listening to Avraham Burg that he, too, is Israeli aristocracy. His mother was a seventh generation Hebron Jew. Half his family was butchered to chants of “Kill the Jew” in 1929, before the creation of the state of Israel, when Arabs rioted against Jewish immigration from Europe. He is, nevertheless, for territorial compromise. Two peoples cannot lay claim to all of the land, Burg says. There has to be a meeting point, not only territorially, but spiritually. “There is no middle path,” Burg says. “We must remove all the settlements and draw internationally recognized borders between ajewish national home and a Palestinian national home. There is no third option.” M

Atina Porter is a former book publisher. She is currently working on Kasztner’s Train, a book about Jewish rescue efforts in Hungary during the Holocaust.