Men and Martyrs

The ghost of Yitzhak Rabin speaks to Ehud Barak, and the message isn’t pretty. Ehud, one old soldier tells another, they never really miss you till you’re gone.

Will it take, God forbid, another assassination for American Jews to appreciate Ehud Barak? Will the man now being reviled as a traitor, a sell-out, a bumbler, be mourned as a hero, a risk-taker, a visionary? Must our leaders be cold before we warm up to them?

Barak, now Israel’s caretaker prime minister, looks to be heading for defeat in the Feb. 6 election contest with Ariel Sharon. And instead of lauding his efforts at the negotiating table, American Jews are silent or speaking out against him. In an opinion piece in last Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, took Barak to task for entertaining President Bill Clinton’s proposals for shared Palestinian and Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

Even Ronald Lauder, viewed by many as the de facto leader of American Jewry in his role as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, spoke briefly at the rally Monday outside of Jerusalem’s Old City that was widely perceived as an anti-Barak gathering.

Rabin earned a place in the Jewish pantheon by reaching out to Israel’s enemies in pursuit of peace. Barak took up Rabin’s mantle, wrestling with the hard, horrible compromises that peace would entail. He was willing to make them, provided his partner in peace would meet him halfway.

Yasser Arafat waffled, then pulled back, preferring to enshrine his legacy as a blood-soaked revolutionary and consign future generations of Palestinians to misery. This doesn’t mean that Oslo failed, just that Arafat did. The step-by-step process developed in Oslo enabled a courageous Israeli leader, such as Barak, to test his partner’s resolve and proceed accordingly. Leaders like Lauder and Hier should be raising up Barak as an example of Israel’s readiness for peace, instead of implicitly running him down as a threat to a united Jerusalem.

When tyro-Israelites like George Will in Newsweek trash Barak, Jewish leaders should respond that Israel’s most decorated soldier is negotiating to protect his country’s security. For Rabin, that was the point of Oslo: not to ensure Palestinian rights, or even to extend Israel’s sovereignty to every piece of land it is biblically entitled to, but to trade the gains of war for a secure peace.

It is chutzpah for American Jewish leaders to demand a determinative role in negotiations over Jerusalem. Israel is a sovereign state, not a Jewish organization. In the Six-Day War, 1,756 Israeli soldiers died to capture the Old City. Then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol didn’t ask for American Jewish advice — or volunteers.

Ehud Barak has tenaciously refused to stop exploring all his negotiating options until he leaves office. It is because of his determination that Clinton could with a clear conscience tell the world that Palestinians, not Israelis, are “in the grip of forces … that have not permitted them” to make peace. Barak has soldiered on despite the fact that inside and outside of Israel his detractors are fomenting the kind of hate-filled atmosphere that preceded the murder of Rabin by a Jewish extremist, and despite the fact that those who should know better are doing little to dilute the venom.

Perhaps Barak could have finessed the talks better. Perhaps he didn’t realize how readily an outspoken minority of American Jews would sacrifice Israeli blood to protect their Holy Land. Perhaps he didn’t know that some leaders don’t understand what real leadership is until it’s too late.