Israel turns to the right

BRUCE WALLACE June 10 1996

Israel turns to the right

BRUCE WALLACE June 10 1996

Israel turns to the right


Netanyahu `s narrow win reveals a society fractured by peace

It was well after midnight, long after polling stations had closed and the last orange embers of Israel’s brutal election-day sun had fizzled into the Mediterranean Sea—and still Israelis did not know which way lay ahead. All night, people had trickled by the spot where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot by a right-wing Jewish assassin last November, parents tugging their children along, couples whisking away tears with the backs of their hands. Tel Aviv’s version of the grassy knoll is an ugly concrete driveway leading to a parking lot, just steps from a noxious downtown boulevard.

But seven months after Rabin’s killing, mourners keep the ground where he fell spruced up with flowers and candles, and graffiti cover the nearby concrete tributes to the Israeli leader who made peace with the Palestinian enemy. “What kind of country have we become where we must protect ourselves from other Jews?” asked Yotam Shai, standing

over the shrine. “I used to believe we were a chosen people, one big family that could show the world a better way to live.” But now, said the young man, a tear carving a path down his cheek, “we are a country just like the rest—divided, suspicious, listening to people talk of fear and hate.”

It has been a frazzled last few months in this bouldered, hot-tem-

pered land, a time of assassination, suicide bus bombers and yet another war to the north in Lebanon. But nothing exposed Israel’s fracturing soul more than the near-perfect split in last week’s elections, the first to include a direct, presidential-style vote for prime minister.

Rabin’s successor, 72-year-old Shimon Peres, had pleaded for a mandate to conclude a final peace deal with Arabs and Palestinians, to turn the shaky Oslo accords of 1993 into a historical fact. But even as Shai was mourning Rabin in the early morning hours, the vote count was nudging opposition Likud party




leader Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu towards power. Netanyahu’s right-wing followers have martyrs and shrines of their own—the intersection where an Islamic suicide bomber killed 13 Israelis in March is just a few blocks from the Rabin marker. Mourners come and candles burn for the victims at that spot, too. It was anxiety about the peace deal, the cold fear that Palestinian self-rule

means only more dead Israelis, which Netanyahu played to throughout the campaign.

“The security of our children is in the hands of Arafat,” he warned Israelis over and over, spitting out the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s name with a contempt most Israelis

still share. “What peace?” he asked, his handsome face crinkled with disdain. The 46-year-old Netanyahu raised the spectre of an aging Peres so bent on leaving his mark in history that he would trade away Israel’s sacred, strategic lands for mere peace on paper—so desperate that he would even surrender complete control

of Jerusalem, the capital and spiritual centre of the Jewish world. Peres scoffed at the suggestions. But in the end, a fractional majority of Israelis agreed with Netanyahu. By a mere 29,457-vote margin—less than one per cent—they demanded, if not an end to the peace process, at least that it be slowed down a bit

It was not a vote of affection; nor is Netanyahu revered as a leader. His Tel Aviv fairground headquarters may have rocked with chants of “Bibi is the King of Israel” on election night, but many Israelis dismiss him as glib, shallow, inexperienced and too much a self-promoter—and plenty of those are in his own party. “Imagine how big the right’s victory would have been if they had a leader that people liked,” noted Peres’s friend and biographer Math Golan sardonically. Even the Orthodox Jewish community, whose leading rabbis offered Netanyahu a late-in-the-campaign en-

dorsement, wag fingers at his less-than-devout lifestyle (it includes three marriages and one public confession of adultery). But Labour could not make character count. The Peres peace plan was the only issue in this campaign, and Netanyahu was the proxy for stopping it in its tracks.

“The choice is the return of the intifadeh or continuing with peace,” a solemn-looking Peres intoned during the only televised debate between the two leaders, warning of a return to the days when rockhurling Palestinian youths made the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip all but ungovernable. £

Certainly some Palestinians were loosening up their throwing arms at the prospect of a Netanyahu win. “The kids here grew up during the intifadeh, and they still think like soldiers,” warned Mustafa Dora, a mer-

chant in the bountiful produce market of Qalqilyah, a Palestiniancontrolled town. “Then we’ll crush them again,” was the quick retort of one jubilant Likud supporter. His is a wildly rosy Israeli version of a six-year struggle that many Israelis accept that they lost, crying uncle from the physical and moral burden of sending their sons and daughters in the army up against Palestinian children armed with stones.

Yet many Israelis worry that Netanyahu’s promises could mark

a return to those days. Long an advocate of an Israel that stretches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, he has vowed to strengthen Israeli settlements on the West Bank—parts of which UltraOrthodox Jews claim for themselves by Biblical right—and to send soldiers into areas controlled by the nascent Palestinian Authority whenever Israeli security demands it. And talks with the Palestinians over the future status of Jerusalem—which Israel is compelled to negotiate under Oslo’s terms—will be short.

Nothing to discuss, Bibi says.

Nor is Netanyahu about to hand the Golan Heights back to Syria, which is demanding return of the strategic and water-rich hills captured by the Israeli counterattack in 1967. Many Israelis who have since settled in the Golan were resigned to leaving their homes should Peres win again, sacrificed to the “greater national good” of a deal with Syria. Now, they sense a reprieve.

“We had to fight for 100 years to get what we have now, so let’s not dump it,” said Mike Ben-Har, 42, a resident of Kibbutz El Rom in the Golan hills, its sweet-smelling wildflowers starting to crisp now under the hot May sun. ‘We feel we give the country a reasonable eastern border. The Arabs are saying: ‘Give us back the land and we won’t kill you.’ Well, when push comes to shove, we have them down cold, so I’m not worried.”

That’s the kind of broad-shouldered talk Netanyahu likes to use himself. But there were signs, as he narrowed Peres’s onetime 16point campaign lead, that Netanyahu’s iron-hard line was dissolving into more moldable clay. Where he once swore he would “never” talk to Arafat, Netanyahu now says he “hopes he doesn’t have to.” And Likud leaders acknowledged that the peace process cannot be reversed. “I wish I could turn the wheel back on certain

parts of the agreement, but once it was made, we have to take it from where we get it,” said Ehud Olmert, Jerusalem’s mayor and a senior Likud member. One of Netanyahu’s first post-election statements was to reiterate that he would not tear up the Oslo agreement. The deal has increased international investment in Israel, and the country remains heavily dependent on aid from Washington, which so wants the process to continue that the Clinton administration nakedly backed Peres’s re-election bid.

“Oslo is irreversible, but Bibi will try to postpone the next steps,” suggests Daniel Tropper, a prominent Jerusalem community worker. “He will try to make the current situation the final situation.”

It is still uncertain whether a Netanyahu government will be more pragmatic than ideological, but the election has shown the country to be unquestionably more factionalized than ever. Smaller, narrow-interest parties scored extraordinarily well in elections for the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament, at the expense of both Labour (34 seats) and Likud (32). The new alignment includes a record 24 members from religious parties, and a block of seven members from the newly formed Russian immigrant party, though Netanyahu is not expected to have any difficulty form-

ing a governing coalition.

But Israel’s gravest fissure is between secular and religious Jews. “We have two groups who have completely different perceptions about what this state is all about, and they are equally intolerant of each other,” said Tropper, who runs a Jerusalem youth centre aimed at bridging the social gap between Jews.

Orthodox Jews are the fastestgrowing group, in numbers as well as in political strength.

They were alarmed by Labor’s coalition partners, especially the Israeli Arab parties, which talk increasingly of watering down the theocratic nature of the Jewish state. Many secular Jews respond that they are the ones risking their lives in the army to defend the religious

right’s territorial claims (Orthodox Jews have an exemption from conscription). “They sit in synagogue, reading their books and praying, while I’m up on the border sleeping with a gun,” said one furious soldier in Tel Aviv last week.

The result is that a country that once drew strength from keeping up its guard against outside enemies now finds itself turning with suspicion on those within. “We never used to check the Jewish passengers on our flights too closely,” said a security agent for the Israeli airline El AÍ, standing a few feet away from where a Jew killed Rabin. “Now, I find myself for the first time looking into the eyes of a Jew, and wondering if he means me harm.”

If there was one casualty of the campaign other than Peres’s political future—this was his fourth unsuccessful bid to be elected prime minister—it was his political slogan heralding a “new Middle East.” ‘We are embarking on an era in which the guns will stay silent while dreams flourish,” Peres wrote in the epilogue to his memoir, Battling for Peace. His vision portrays an integrated Middle East, where Israel and its Arab neighbors form a regional trade and defence bloc. He preached that skills and economic muscle—not occupied territory—would guarantee Israel’s survival. It was a message of hope, targeted at Israel’s youth and bolstered every time Peres had his photo taken welcoming another Arab leader into the peace camp. “The new Middle East is a fact,” said Catriel Efrony, a painter in the Galilean hilltop town of Zefat and a former Labour activist from Peres’s generation. “Peres likes big ideas. But he is not an empty dreamer.”

Yet many Israelis remained stubbornly skeptical. The Middle East is one of the globe’s tougher neighborhoods, not the Scandinavia Peres openly wished for. His right-wing opponents ran campaign ads showing terrorist violence—followed immediately by footage of Peres and Arafat walking hand in hand. And Netanyahu missed no opportunity to mock the “new Middle East.” He demanded to see it, dismissed it as naive at best and a dangerous “fiasco” at worst. The message was clear in a country whose survival has been threatened by repeated attacks from Arab states: there is no luxury to dream. “The idea that there can be some kind of final solution to the problem of Jews and Arabs is wishful thinking,” said Yahuda Amichai, Israel’s leading poet, as he sat in his cool Jerusalem home with a view towards the Old City. “There are no final solutions. Why can’t it be good enough to simply prevent the next war? Peace is like love: it either comes or it doesn’t. But a situation of no war is also good.”

That is the constituency that Netanyahu’s go-slow approach may cater to. “Of course we want peace, but we have time, we don’t have to rush,” said Nili Friedman, sitting in the colorful gar-

den of her home in Rosh Pinna, a perch that slopes into a valley and onto the Sea of Galilee. The view is marvelous and serene, but the Zionist pioneers who in the 1880s made Rosh Pinna the first immigrant Jewish settlement were not moved to romanticize its grandeur. To them it was hostile, unforgiving land and they barely scratched out a living. Friedman’s husband is a great-great-grandson of those first families. She has heard the family lessons, and is not about to get sentimental and soft now. “Jews are not allowed to be weak,” said Friedman firmly. “Peres is an old man, who wanted to go into history as the King of Peace. Fine. But peace is something we have to do carefully.”

Peres was not oblivious to that need for caution. In the last few months, the Labour party talked up its policy of separation to try to soothe Israeli worries. The two peoples could have their own states, Labour said, but the Palestinian plots would be fenced in and could be sealed at Israeli will. “We don’t believe in multinational states,” said Labour health minister Ephraim Sneh. “It didn’t

work in Yugoslavia, and history is full of horrifying examples of what happens in multinational states. Separation is the only way to build a reasonable co-existence here.” Even with Labour’s defeat, it is an idea that retains currency. “I don’t care if separation is not in keeping with the taste of Western liberals,” said Tropper. “The crude reality is that people are not ready to live together, not overnight, not after 50 years of war.”

In practice, separation is a fence made of rusty poles and barbed

wire, strung for miles around dusty Palestinian towns like Qalqilyah, northeast of Tel Aviv.

Qalqilyah has been shuttered since the winter bombings, traffic through the one open military checkpoint reduced to a trickle. In the market, the men complain that the tight security has destroyed business—without making Israel any safer. “A fence will never stop people who want to do operations in Israel,” said one man, pointing out a Palestinian woman walking into town through a hole in the fence. “A fence will only make more hatred,” said another, Mohamed Dawod, his voice rising in the empty market. “It

is impossible, impossible to keep us separate. We depend on Israel economically, and they depend on us.”

But Israeli businesses are importing more and more foreign workers to reduce their dependence on the Palestinian labor force. That augers poorly for Arafat, who must show that his agreements have brought some prosperity, even if they don’t return all the lands lost to Israel through war. Many Palestinians

remain unimpressed by Oslo and Arafat, and are not yet ready to surrender their dream of returning to lands lost in the wars of 1948 and 1967. “I can see my father’s lands in the hands of the Israelis,” said Mustafa Dora in Qalqilyah. ‘Wouldn’t you fight until you got it back?

And who,” he asked defiantly, “will control Jerusalem?”

£ The crude reality is that people are not ready to live together ^

Always Jerusalem. No issue is as intractable as the competing claims on the city that contains the Temple Mount, a foundation of the Muslim and Jewish faiths. Standing at a newly excavated part of the Western Wall of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter on a blistering day last week, archeologist Ya’akov Billig pointed to the ancient chalky limestone street exposed below. He and his workers are stripping away the centuries, exposing evidence of Jewish life just outside the Second Temple walls 2,000 years ago that is distinct

from ruins of what he calls the “mumble jumble of Jerusalem’s history” lying nearby. For several yards along, they have exposed the pristine, uncracked slabs of a shopping street. Storefront facades are still visible. Beyond are the rubbled remains of a massive arch toppled by the Romans after they suppressed the Jewish revolt of 70 AD. “You can still hear the thud and the echo of these several-ton monsters thrown down onto the street,” said Billig, his eyes betraying his excitement.

Critics on the Muslim side of the city contend that the Israeli excavation is politically driven by

a need to prove the Jewish claim to Jerusalem. Billig just accepts that suspicion comes with this territory. ‘To be here, to touch the last fragments of Jewish independence before being dispersed for 1,900 years, is obviously not just a professional challenge—it touches your heart,” he said. It is that emotional draw, the mystical appeal of place, which makes it seem impossible that Netanyahu or Arafat can keep the peace process alive unless the

future of Jerusalem is addressed. “This is it, the holiest of holies,” said Billig, slapping the huge wall that bolsters the Temple Mount. “Do what you want with Gaza, or with the Golan, but it’s all going to revolve around this mountain.” He wants to avoid politics. “We’ll see what God has in store for us.” □