Tzipi Livni wins Kadima contest — now the real work begins

JERUSALEM (JTA) – With her decisive win in the Kadima party primary on Wednesday, Tzipi Livni’s next major task will be assembling a coalition government so she can become prime minister.

Then all she’ll have on her plate is figuring out how to arrest the threat to Israel from Iran, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a historic peace deal, neutralize the threat on Israel’s northern border from Hezbollah and run the country.

If she ever gets to it.

The immediate challenge faced by Livni, until now the foreign minister, is piecing together a coalition that will hold without pulling her government in too many different directions. If she fails, Israel will be headed for new general elections.

In Wednesday’s vote at 114 polling stations around the country, about 50 percent of Kadima’s 74,000 members voted for party leader – relatively low turnout by Israeli standards. Even so, Livni complained of “congestion” at polling stations and argued for an extension of voting time by an hour. In a compromise, Kadima decided to extend voting by 30 minutes.

Exit polls showed Livni won about 48 percent of the vote, beating out her primary rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, by at least 10 points and avoiding a runoff by surpassing the 40 percent threshold. The two other contenders in the primary, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, garnered an estimated 7 percent each.

Livni’s victory is historic in several respects. She won the first-ever primary held by Kadima, the three-year old political party founded by Ariel Sharon. Her election also brings an end to the Olmert era, though Ehud Olmert will stay on as caretaker prime minister until a coalition is assembled.

And once she puts together a coalition, Livni will become Israel’s second female prime minister, following Golda Meir.

Livni will have 42 days to form a government. She has made it clear that she wants to base her new government on the existing coalition – Kadima, Labor, Shas and the Pensioners party — with the possible addition of other parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu on the right, Meretz from the left and the fervently Orthodox Torah Judaism party.

Livni wants to limit the current transition period, which she sees as a potentially unhealthy period of two-headed government. Olmert will continue as acting prime minister until Livni forms a new government.

Kadima leaders argue that there already is a functioning government and there is no reason it shouldn’t continue its work. They maintain that all the Labor party asked Kadima to do was change its leader, and, now that Kadima has done that, continuing with the present coalition shouldn’t be a problem.

But Livni’s main coalition partners have no intention of giving her an easy ride. Labor argues that a prime minister effectively elected by only 18,000-20,000 Israelis has no legitimacy and that the Israeli people as a whole should be allowed to have their say in new elections.

Shas is also threatening new elections unless Livni meets its demands for more generous child allowances and a pledge to keep Jerusalem off the negotiating agenda with the Palestinians.

If Livni fails to form a coalition, there could be an election as early as next spring. If she succeeds, she could govern for a year or two before going into a new election with the incumbency advantage.

During the campaign, Livni gave a slew of interviews in which she spelled out her priorities:

  • Moving ahead on the Palestinian track: Over the past few months, she and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia have been drafting a full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Both sides say that although they have made progress, closing the wide gaps that still exist will take time.

    Once Livni is installed as prime minister, one key issue will become more difficult to resolve: refugees. Livni has repeatedly said that she will not agree to any resettlement in Israel proper of Palestinian refugees, because allowing just one Palestinian refugee in would chip away at Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.

    Livni might ease conditions on the ground by dismantling illegal settler outposts in the West Bank, which successive Israeli prime ministers have failed to do. She argues that any government she heads will assert the rule of law.

    As for Gaza, Livni warns that she will consider a large-scale ground offensive if Hamas uses the current truce to smuggle in huge quantities of arms.

  • Ascertaining the seriousness of the Syrian track: Ever since Israel and Syria started conducting new peace feelers through Turkish auspices in January 2007, Livni has not been in the loop. She has argued that by going public with the talks, Israel has given Syria a degree of international legitimacy without getting very much in return.

    Livni will want to see for herself whether Syrian President Bashar Asad is ready for a peace with Israel that entails a significant downgrading of his relations with Iran.

  • Dealing quietly with the Iranian nuclear threat: Livni says as far as Israel is concerned “all options are on the table” and that to say any more would be irresponsible. But she has intimated in the past that Israel could live with a nuclear Iran by establishing a very clear deterrent balance.
  • Introducing a new style of cleaner government: Livni, who won the leadership race at least partly because of her squeaky clean image, will want to signal early on that she intends to introduce a new style of governing. Livni will want to clean up party politics by breaking the power of the Kadima vote contractors who drafted people en masse to vote for a particular candidate. One idea is to set a minimum membership period — say, 18 months — before party members get voting rights.

By electing Livni, Kadima voters seemed to be saying enough of the generals at the top, and enough of wheeler-dealer politics. Livni, dubbed Mrs. Clean, is seen as a straight-thinking, scandal-free civilian clearly out to promote Israel’s best interests.

She has a full agenda, a chance to change the tenor of Israel politics and to make historic moves vis-a-vis the Palestinians and Syria.

But first she will have to put together a viable coalition.

U.S. Jews Laud Withdrawal Vote

American Jewish organizations rushed Tuesday afternoon to express support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan.

Sharon’s initiative was “not an easy decision, but we fully share the Israeli government’s view that it was the right decision to safeguard the future of the State of Israel,” the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, David Harris, said in a statement.

“We salute Prime Minister Sharon’s bold initiative and pledge our public support for the implementation of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza,” leaders of the Anti-Defamation League said.

In a more tepid statement, the chairman and executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations expressed “support for the Knesset vote approving the Gaza disengagement plan,” noting that “further votes will be necessary for various stages of implementation.”

“We hope that all parties will be able to come together to work on implementation and to minimize divisiveness,” James Tisch and Malcolm Hoenlein said.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said that Tuesday’s developments were tough.

“This policy not only rewards and appeases terrorists, but the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza will make it much easier for terrorists to set up bomb factories and bring weapons into Gaza, including even more dangerous and accurate missiles that will threaten major cities within Israel,” Klein said.

Nearly all the Jewish groups issuing statements noted the impending anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, urging Israeli leaders to summon courage for peace with the Palestinians — and urging opponents to eschew violence.

“As we approach the ninth anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, we are again reminded of the urgent need for civility. We join with the vast majority of Israelis in urging respect for the lawful decisions of Israel’s elected leaders,” Harris said.

Applauding Israel for reaching a “historic milestone on its decades-long quest for peace and security,” the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) also recalled Rabin’s memory.

In commemorating Rabin, the group said that “today’s vote motivates us even more to do all we can to support his unfulfilled quest for two states living side-by-side in peace and security,” JCPA Chair Marie Abrams said.

Americans for Peace Now took its kudos a step further, saying the Knesset move was precedent setting.

“Approval of this disengagement plan sets an important precedent for the evacuation of other settlements in the years ahead,” President and CEO Debra DeLee said. — Rachel Pomerance, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Kerry Offers Hope for Israel

Many American Jews and Israeli Americans seem impressed by George W. Bush’s putative support for Israel. As an Israeli, I implore responsible

Jewish voters who care about Israel: Look at his record over his rhetoric, and you’ll see the dangers of his leadership for this country.

Luckily, Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) record offers hope for Israel.

I made aliyah from New York and have lived in Israel for nine years, through two intifadas and at least two Iraq scares, masks and all. But I have never been more frightened for Israel’s safety, than under President Bush. I have never despaired more of advancing peace, as during Bush’s term.

It is difficult to recall a president who was less engaged in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether we liked or disliked Bush senior. and Secretary of State James Baker’s disciplinarian approach, they were involved. Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, President Clinton was passionately committed.

During the worst four years in Israel’s history, George W. Bush has done a resounding nothing.

In his first National Security Council meeting, he decided to disengage from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his disinterest shows: The “road map” was presented and then forgotten. Bush opposed Israel’s security fence throughout 2003, threatening Israel’s loan guarantees, and then suddenly supported it — coincidentally at the start of the election year.

The same goes for unilateral separation. Prior to 2004, Bush refused to call Arafat a terrorist and insisted he remain the negotiating partner; a former political officer at the Israeli Embassy in Washington noted ruefully that Bush is the reason Arafat is still around.

Some hailed the president’s “promises” to Ariel Sharon in April as a victory — yet Bush all but reneged, including regarding the Palestinian right of return, two weeks later. Just last month at the U.N. General Assembly, Bush called for a settlement freeze. Which is the real Bush policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

With the second intifada, many here felt that only strong American involvement would help reach a negotiated end to the misery. As president, George W. Bush hasn’t even visited Israel. His policy is an irrelevant mess of contradictions that leaves Israel in despair.

But Bush’s actions in Iraq leave the country in danger. Suicide bombings and now beheadings are tearing Iraq and other countries apart — a horror we hoped no one else would ever know. Iraq is out of control, Bin Laden is free and Al Qaeda is growing. That makes Israel, and being Israeli, more dangerous.

His lack of action in Iran is beyond dangerous — it is outrageous. America has known about secret nuclear facilities for more than two years, and now everyone knows about Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons. But Iraq has cost vital American credibility in Europe and the Arab world, and America is far weaker in facing the escalating threat. Iran is a hornet’s nest of hatred, by some accounts it is the new Afghanistan, putting Israel directly in the line of fire.

Isolation and resentment of America spills over onto Israel. Conspiracy theories affect business, social and cultural relations. When Mikos Theodorakis, the legendary Greek composer, railed on the Israeli-American control over the world, he sounded only partly anti-Semitic. In part, he was just expressing beliefs that are tragically prevalent in once-benign neighboring countries.

A generation of moderate Muslims is turning radical, learning to hate America — and with it, Israel — because of the mangled Iraq war effort. Who is the closer target for their rage, America or Israel? Al Qaeda is threatening Israelis around the world, and the Mombasa incident, the terrorist attack at a Kenya hotel frequented by Israelis, shows its capabilities.

In Israel, the world’s resentment, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Islamic extremism are bad enough. Under Bush, these problems have gotten worse and he shows little commitment to addressing them. I’m not even sure he understands them.

Kerry understands. He has supported Israel in every vote for 20 years; that’s way before the electoral campaign started. Kerry understood how to fight terrorism long before Bush was ignoring intelligence reports on imminent attacks in the United States.

While Bush senior was selling missiles to Saudi Arabia (How is that good for Israel?), Kerry was one of the first to write a Senate report investigating Saudi businesses for funding terrorist organizations. Bush senior met members of the Bin Laden family, and the figures incriminated in Kerry’s 1992 report helped fund Bush’s electoral campaign.

Kerry has a 12-year, highly analytical approach targeting the sources of terrorism. Bush has a four-year record of being passive on intelligence, coddling Saudis, making the wrong connection between Iraq, weapons of mass destruction and Sept. 11, and talking tough while Iran and North Korea fester.

Despite his rhetoric, the administration has cut State Department counterterrorism programs by an average of 20 percent every year since Sept. 11. Kerry is unburdened by the Republicans’ chronic dual loyalty to Arab oil barons alongside America’s security, which led them to defeat a bill banning oil companies from doing business with terrorist states — this past June.

When the election dust settles, Bush will no longer need to buy Jewish votes — so there is no guarantee that actions he eventually does take would favor Israel. And after four years of Bush’s leadership, Israel is a more dangerous place, a more hated place and a more hopeless place.

How can we reject a candidate who understands, with unwavering support, what Israel needs?

Courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Dahlia Scheindlin is an international political consultant and public opinion analyst based in Tel Aviv.

Is Bush Good for Israel?

Last October, when Israeli air force jets struck a Palestinian terrorist training camp outside Damascus in response to a deadly suicide bombing at a Haifa restaurant, there was some anticipation that Washington might rebuke its Jewish ally. It was, after all, Israel’s first attack inside Syria in three decades. And it came at a tenuous moment both for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for U.S. stabilization efforts in Iraq.

The last thing the Bush administration needed was a flare-up along Israel’s northern border. The expectations were wrong. Yes, the administration, including President Bush, urged Israel to be mindful of the consequences of its decisions. But there was no outright condemnation.

In fact, Bush expressed understanding for the strike; he said he would have made the same choice. “The decisions [Prime Minister Ariel Sharon] makes to defend [Israel’s] people are valid decisions. We would be doing the same thing,” Bush said.

It was perhaps one of the clearest examples of how Bush, influenced by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, has come to perceive the U.S. war on terrorism as akin to Israel’s war with Palestinian terrorist groups. That view was evident in his recent press conference, too, when he grouped bus bombings in Jerusalem with a long litany of Al Qaeda attacks, including the Sept. 11 strikes.

Bush’s sympathy for Israel’s security challenges — and Sharon’s domestic political challenges — was evident again most recently at his April 14 meeting with Sharon, when Bush forthrightly endorsed Israel’s right to defend itself against terror, told Palestinian refugees they were unrealistic to ever think they would return to Israel and supported the principle of Israel holding on to portions of the West Bank in a future peace agreement.

American Jews, many of whom have been kvelling for months over Bush’s “pro-Israel” stance, were ecstatic with Bush’s display of affection for Sharon, which was evident not only in the letters of assurances they exchanged but in the jocular atmosphere at their joint appearance before reporters. American Jewish groups from across the political spectrum could not send press releases fast enough praising Bush.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, called it an “exemplary display of historic cooperation.” Israel Policy Forum, a group that strongly backed President Bill Clinton’s efforts to foster a two-state solution said Bush “rose to the occasion.”

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which fights many of the Bush administration’s social policies, applauded Bush’s comments. Reform movement leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie, so impressed by the Bush-Sharon display, described the prime minister as his “hero” for his unilateral disengagement plan.

There is much evidence that Bush has been an outstanding president for Israel. Perhaps nothing benefited Israel more in terms of its long-term security threats, analysts say, than the U.S.-led regime change in Iraq, which Israel believed posed an existential threat to its existence. Bush carried it out despite warnings from many skeptics who argued that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needed to be found first.

“Certainly Israel’s security is enhanced by the absence of Saddam Hussein,” Rep. Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood) told The Jewish Journal.

Bush has made the Iranian threat a top issue, too. Last week, he spoke about the intolerability of Iran achieving a nuclear weapon, “particularly since their stated objective is the destruction of Israel.”

On the Israeli-Palestinian front, he has given Sharon unbridled leeway to fight Palestinian terrorism. Bush long ago dumped Yasser Arafat as a negotiating partner, acknowledging what Israel has been saying for years — that he is not a partner for peace.

But amid the din of delight about Bush, there are some voices of dissent — including some prominent former U.S. officials in particular, who worry that the American Jewish community is misguided in its praise for the president’s Israel policies. Martin Indyk, the former two-time U.S. ambassador to Israel, contends that Bush’s embrace of Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan might harm Israel’s overall security long-term and lead to many more Israeli casualties.

“Look, there’s no question that Bush has been a friend of Israel in difficult times, in his repeated willingness to veto U.N. Security Council resolutions that are hostile to Israel, his sense of principle that Israel has its right to defend itself and to react with force to terrorists who act against it,” Indyk said. “Those things are very important, and I give him credit for that. But what has been lacking is a willingness to help Israel stop the violence and regenerate a process of reconciliation.”

“The problem in terms of the Jewish community is people have come to regard engagement by the United States as pressure on Israel. They have concluded it’s a bad thing. They misunderstand that engagement helps Israel achieves its objectives. Israel has achieved peace with Egypt because of U.S. engagement. It achieved peace with Jordan because of U.S. engagement. But the notion that engagement is the wrong thing is wrong-headed,” Indyk said. “Without that effort, we end up with these kinds of unilateral steps, territory for nothing. There’s no commitment on the other side.”

Most glaring among the Bush administration’s faults on the Israeli-Palestinian front was its failure to encourage Sharon to prop up Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who was forced to resign last autumn after failing to produce any achievements for his people.

“Imagine if Sharon had agreed to evacuate one settlement in the negotiations, the impact that would have had on Abu Mazen’s ability to convey that he could deliver what terrorism could not,” Indyk said. “Instead, the Palestinians reach the conclusion that terrorism works.”

Indyk faulted Bush, not Sharon, for this, saying, “I blame George Bush. Because my experience with Ariel Sharon is he has always been ready to respond to American engagement.”

Instead, Bush, after meeting with Abu Mazen and Sharon in Aqaba last June, became preoccupied with Iraq and walked away from the process.

“The Jewish community agrees that the Palestinians are to blame, and everybody is happy,” Indyk said. “Except Israel isn’t helped by that. If [Bush] had engaged earlier on the Mitchell plan and the Tenet cease-fire plan in the first six months, a lot fewer Israelis would have died.”

Aaron Miller, president of Seeds of Peace and an adviser to the last six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations, said, “Rarely have you had a president who is so ideologically attuned to the importance of accommodating Israel’s security needs.”

“In terms of whether Bush has been good for Israel on the narrow issue of Israel’s security needs and requirements, you have an administration that is likely to give Israel the benefit of the doubt that no other administration — at least that I’ve worked for — has been willing to,” Miller said. “It’s rare for a Republican administration to relate so closely and so seamlessly to a Likud government.”

Miller applauded Bush for being the first U.S. president to endorse a state of “Palestine,” the first to talk seriously about the problem of Palestinian incitement and the first to consider introducing monitors, early on, to observe implementation of any interim agreement. But on whether the approach the administration has adopted on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is good for Israel, Miller said, “I think the answer would clearly be no.”

“I don’t want to reach the conclusion yet that what we are facing now [in the wake of the Bush-Sharon agreements on unilateral disengagement] is the beginning of the end of the two-state solution,” he continued. “But what if in effect you are creating enough of a critical mass that the odds against such a solution grow stronger and stronger.”

Echoing Indyk’s criticism of the lack of engagement, Miller said, “We have failed to understand that by sitting on the sidelines and essentially acquiescing — however well-intentioned the reasons may be — we are adopting a course of action that is likely to make the situation worse than better.”

Miller said the political assurances Bush gave Sharon are “not a tectonic shift” from the parameters Clinton outlined on the right of return for Palestinian refugees or the prospect of something less than a return to the 1967 borders. In fact, he said, Bush’s formulations are much more general.

The problem, he argued, is that “the assurances occur against a backdrop of no peace process, no mediation and a climate of hopelessness and despair.”

Bruce Jentleson, director of the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University, said the American Jewish community “is too readily equating Bush’s agreeing with Sharon on all issues with acting in Israel’s security interests.”

He doesn’t think they equate. “I think the kind of support the Bush administration is giving to Sharon is not in Israel’s security interests. It’s pretty certain you can’t have security without peace. And this is making peace more difficult.”

Jentleson said Sharon “played Bush like a fiddle” in winning support for his unilateral withdrawal plan by stressing Israel’s war on terrorism and its security needs, issues that resonate with Bush. He said the latest example of this was Sharon saying he told Bush he is no longer bound by his commitment not to harm Arafat. Bush, Jentleson said, “is not calling the shots here.”

The assurances Bush gave Sharon, beyond perhaps endangering a future peace process, also could pose problems for America’s moderate Arab allies, like Egypt and Jordan, whom the U.S. and Israel will rely on for help in implementing the unilateral disengagement plan, specifically the re-training of Palestinian security forces to take control in the Gaza Strip.

While one Jordanian diplomat told me that there would be no formal, fresh consequences for the Israel-Jordan relationship, it seems unlikely that the Jordanian ambassador or the Egyptian ambassador, yanked from Tel Aviv in October 2000 to protest Israel’s handling of the intifada, will return anytime soon.

Washington’s “prejudging these critical issues at this stage will negatively impact the whole region and not just Jordan, also the other moderate countries,” the Jordanian diplomat said. “Anyone who has good relations with Israel will be looked at skeptically.”

A U.S. official said the Bush-Sharon embrace could negatively impact those countries’ willingness to cooperate in counterterrorism efforts and most certainly in Washington’s plan for democratic reform in the region, known as the Middle East Partnership Initiative.

How much the Bush pledges to Sharon will matter in the long-term will depend largely on whether he is elected to a second term.

“If he has a good legacy in the Middle East, it will be very important. But if he goes down as a one-term president who embroiled the country in a war, I don’t’ think it will have a long-lasting effect, because he will go down as one more president who didn’t really understand the realities of the region,” said Gal Luft, executive director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. A specialist in the Middle East and terrorism, Luft is also a former lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), hoping to boost his credentials with the Jewish community, rather than try to distinguish himself from Bush on the Israel issue — as he has on virtually every other — welcomed the unilateral withdrawal plan and Bush’s endorsement of it. His punting was most evident in his response to a question on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when Tim Russert asked: “President Bush broke with the tradition and policy of six predecessors when he said that Israel can keep part of the land seized in the 1967 Middle East War and asserted the Palestinian refugees cannot go back to their particular homes. Do you support President Bush?”

Kerry replied, simply, “Yes.”

“He’s basically saying, listen, there are many issues of disagreement between George Bush and John Kerry — from Iraq, to stem-cell research, to choice — but when it comes to the safety and security of the State of Israel, it’s just not going to be an issue,” said Jay Footlik, senior adviser on Middle East and Jewish issues in the Kerry campaign.

Footlik said he understands why the Bush campaign would want to “keep the focus on Israel” with the Jewish community. “It’s a winning message for them,” he acknowledged.

But Footlik predicted that the message will not sway too many Democratic Jewish voters away from Kerry. “Jewish voters are not one-issue voters,” he said. “And while Israel is first and foremost in our minds, we know when we have a strong candidate on Israel and have strong bipartisan support on Israel. [Jews] are at great odds with just about everything the administration has done on domestic issues.”

Jentleson, however, predicted more Jews will vote for Bush than any previous Republican candidate, and that Bush could win perhaps as much as half the Jewish vote. “I think he’ll do really well,” he said. But he does not believe that Bush’s support for Sharon has been motivated by pure politics.

“For Bush it’s a twofer,” he said. “It works for him politically, and it embodies his world view.”

Janine Zacharia is the Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. She
also is a regular contributor to The New Republic and a Mideast analyst for
MSNBC. She wrote this article for The Jewish Journal.

Shrinking Confidence

The public bloodletting that the Labor Party presented to the Israeli public this week has exposed the depth of disarray and confusion on the Israeli left following Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s massive defeat at the polls.

Labor’s Central Committee ultimately voted by a 2-1 margin Monday to join Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon’s proposed national unity government.

But the margin masks the magnitude of division within Labor about the proper course of action for a party that, until the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada five months ago, was convinced that its path as the standard-bearer of Israel’s peace camp was the correct one.

Farther to the left, the Meretz Party also is in disarray.

Barak, the man who sought to lead Labor into a unity government until he realized the extent of his colleagues’ loathing, didn’t even bother to attend Monday’s raucous Central Committee meeting.

Much as the septuagenarian Sharon stepped in to resuscitate the ailing Likud after Benjamin Netanyahu’s defeat in 1999, it was left to party elder Shimon Peres, 78, to swing Laborites to his vision of the party’s role.

In arguing passionately for a unity government, Peres faced down Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and Knesset faction chair Ofir Pines-Paz, all of whom argued that Labor was in effect selling its soul to join Sharon.

Peres castigated the doves for being "out of touch" with the people and assured the party that the great majority of the public wants a unity government.

"The time has come to listen to the nation for once," Peres said in a plea for unity, as supporters clapped and hecklers booed. "For once, listen to the will of the nation."

Labor would emerge strengthened from a period in the unity government, Peres argued; in opposition, it would do little but make speeches during a period of national crisis.

Beilin, Peres’s political protege and one of the main opponents of a unity government, said Labor’s only purpose would be to extend the life of an ill-fated coalition under Sharon.

"Shimon, I love you, but listening to your remarks, I want to cry," Beilin said.

As the dust settled on Tuesday, Beilin warned that Sharon could not count on unified support from Labor members in important Knesset votes.

"Sharon has to know that there will be Knesset members who won’t be able to support him," Beilin told Israel’s Army Radio. "He is getting only a part of the Labor Party."

Yet what the opponents of unitydidn’t say at Monday’s meeting was as telling as what they did.

More important than the abuse and recrimination hurled around the hall was the fact that the losers in the struggle made no threat to split the party.

Immediately after Sharon’s huge election victory on Feb. 6, Beilin began an open flirtation with Meretz leader Sarid, with his eye on fashioning a new social democratic party from the bulk of Meretz’s membership and Labor breakaways.

The assumption was that Labor’s accession to a unity government — presumably, at that time, under the defeated Barak — would trigger a sizable breakaway movement. But on Monday, it was painfully clear to the doves that any split would be of discouragingly modest proportions.

Indeed, Meretz also seems in no shape for new political adventures. Sarid has been strongly criticized within the party for his decision a month before the election not to support Peres’ bid to run for premier.

With polls at the time showing Peres giving Sharon a neck-and-neck race, Peres had sought the support of Meretz’s 10 Knesset members — the minimum number required to back a candidacy — to present his own, alternative candidacy from the left.

Sarid’s decision effectively enshrined Barak — who was trailing massively in the polls — as the peace camp’s candidate.

Now there are some in Meretz who believe Sarid, too, should resign as party leader.

There even are a few voices in Meretz that favor joining Sharon’s unity coalition, if the prime minister-elect agrees to leave out the far-right party led by politicians Avigdor Lieberman and Rehavam Ze’evi.

To some on the left, these currents in Labor and Meretz reflect how severely the Israeli peace camp has lost its sense of confidence — and, some would say, its direction.

This is due not only to Barak’s massive electoral defeat. Rather, it is the bleak realization that Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority rejected a peace package presented by Barak and President Clinton that represented Israel’s ultimate red line.

While many suggest the package could have been presented more sensitively and gracefully, Israeli peaceniks don’t see what more of substance could have been offered.

In any case, Arafat’s response was a low-level war that exploded the world view the peace camp has carefully nurtured since the famous 1993 handshake on the White House lawn that set the peace process in motion.

The left in Israel is now so discomfited that it doesn’t have the strength to split, regroup and launch a new and more homogenous peace party.

While some aspirants for Labor’s leadership are competing for the party’s eight ministerial slots in the unity government, Labor doves are refusing to serve in Sharon’s Cabinet.

They can now devote all their energies to the looming battle for party leadership.

One of those doves, Burg, hopes to turn the widespread dismay in the party to his advantage in the leadership primaries.

Others, including, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, outgoing communications minister, hopes a ministerial position in Sharon’s Cabinet will help his bid to become Labor leader.

If Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh is nominated for defense minister by Labor’s Central Committee, that will certainly whet his appetite for a leadership bid.

Other possible candidates for party leader are Ben-Ami — who still insists that a peace agreement with the Palestinians was just around the corner — and Haim Ramon, who favors a unity government but has taken himself out of the running for Sharon’s Cabinet.

Both will be watching reaction to the unwieldy and heterogeneous unity government before deciding whether to compete for Labor leader.

Peres, who on Monday ridiculed Ben-Ami’s contention that a peace deal was at hand, is likely to become interim party leader, but has said he does not want the job on a permanent basis.

Big Time Defeat

The night George McGovern got trounced by Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential race, Barry Goldwater, whom Lyndon Johnson had clobbered eight years earlier, called to commiserate. "George," said Goldwater, "if you have to lose, lose big."

Ehud Barak can take some comfort in Goldwater’s wisdom. Unlike Al Gore, who will likely be wondering for some time how he could have put just a little more English on fate, Barak’s overwhelming defeat to Ariel Sharon leaves little room for second-guessing. He got whumped. And if you had to find one overarching reason why, it is, ironically, the fact that Barak is not a man given to second-guessing.

His campaign slogan in 1999 was "Israel Wants a Change," but from the moment he entered office, it may as well have been "Barak Knows Better." He shunned coalitions and refused to reach out to allies, adversaries and, worst of all, his fellow citizens.

But Barak was not without a singular, brave accomplishment. The issues that define the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will not go away no matter who rules Israel, because the Palestinians will not go away. Barak gave Yasser Arafat an opportunity to show the world that the greatest obstacle to peace is not Israel, but Arafat. Unfortunately, Barak was singularly bad at communicating such issues to his nation and building a consensus around them. Like Binyamin Netanyahu, Barak proved a case study in how great intellect alone does not translate into great political leadership.

As Steven Spiegel points out (p. 6), Israelis did not vote against peace — polls showed the dovish Shimon Peres would have done better than Barak. They were voting for security and against Arafat. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but Sharon may surprise detractors and upset admirers by using that truth as a starting point for reaching some accord with the Palestinians. "Israel will never depart from the path of peace," writes Consul General Yuval Rotem (p. 11). We can all hope that Sharon’s election may not even be so much as a detour.

An Anatomy of Failure

When Israeli voters go to the polls next week to elect a prime minister, Ehud Barak will be consigned to political history, and Ariel Sharon will move into the newly vacated post.

Sharon has effectively waged a campaign of silence, allowing the failed peace process and the daily, continuing Palestinian violence to speak for themselves.

Sharon knew, as his advisors surely knew, that unless Barak was able to cut a deal with the Palestinians that was acceptable to most Israelis and unless he was able to halt the violence, he would have no chance of re-election. There was simply no point in reciting ideological differences while blood was flowing in the streets of Israel.

What, then, went so drastically wrong for Barak, Israel’s most highly decorated war hero, who made the most generous offer that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is ever likely to receive from an Israeli prime minister?

A clue can be found in the recently concluded talks at the Egyptian resort of Taba, where the Palestinians knew Barak would present his maximal offer in an effort to secure a last-minute, election-winning deal.

The protracted negotiations ended Jan. 27 with a joint statement in which the two sides spoke warmly and enthusiastically of the “unprecedented… positive atmosphere and mutual willingness to meet the national, security and existential needs of each side.”

Then came the curt announce-ment that all contact with Arafat would cease and that further negotiations with the Palestinians would be put on hold until after the Feb. 6 election.

The obvious question was, with 10 days to go before the election and the two sides apparently so close, why not press ahead and cut a deal?

The answer is that there was, in fact, no deal in the offing. But each side, for its own reasons quite different reasons, had an interest in dressing up the Taba encounter in the most attractive guise.

Barak needed a positive outcome to demonstrate to his electorate that even as Israelis continued to be the target of Palestinian bombers and gunmen, he continued to hold the key to peace. Elect me, he seemed to be saying, and with just one more push we will reach the promised land.

At the same time, he canceled a proposed summit with Arafat in Stockholm the following Tuesday because, although he is presenting himself as the “peace candidate,” he knows that a photo-op with his much-reviled “peace partner” would win him few votes come next Tuesday.

As for Arafat, the Palestinian leader has two conflicting objectives: he needs to be seen traveling hopefully but never actually to arrive.

He needs to demonstrate to the new Bush administration, to European leaders and to others who offer him political and financial support — and who must by now surely understand his elaborate double game — that he is indeed seizing every opportunity to strive for peace.

At the same time, he needs to demonstrate to his own hard-line constituency — much of which is opposed to any deal with Israel under any circumstances — that he is not about to be suckered by the Israelis.

The bottom line is that Arafat believes he has more to lose than to gain by declaring an end to the conflict and making peace with Israel. He knows that such a deal could cost him his head.

There are simply too many vested interests in keeping the conflict on the boil. Despotic regimes which have been constructed to a greater or lesser extent on their hostility to Israel, such as Syria, Iraq and Iran, would likely face serious destablization if a central pillar — the Palestinian question — were suddenly to be removed.

So when Arafat appeared at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Jan. 28, he balanced the warm words of Taba with a heavy dose of his own brand of realpolitik.

The Israeli leader had just offered the Palestinians virtually the whole of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, shared control of Jerusalem and recognition of a Palestinian state.

But when Arafat rose to address delegates, he told them that Israel was waging “a savage and barbaric war as well as a blatant and fascist military aggression against our Palestinian people.”

For those who might have missed it in the past, Arafat was turning on yet another bravura performance, demonstrating once more his ability to walk the high wire, which has allowed him to dominate the media agenda and catalyze two civil wars (in Jordan and Lebanon) while holding down one of the most perilous jobs over the past 30 years.

But Arafat is more than simply a clever circus act. He is a tragedy — for Israel and for his own people.

He destroyed the career of Ehud Barak, potentially one of the great prime ministers of Israel and potentially one of the greatest benefactors of the Palestinian people — certainly the only ruler in the long and bloody history of the area to have offered the Palestinians a state of their own.

There will eventually be peace between Israelis and Palestinians, if only because there is no alternative. But it will not come soon, perhaps not for generations. In the meantime, much blood will be spilt and much heartache will follow this historic missed opportunity as Arafat hands the reins to the psychopathic killers within his ranks.

Blood and tears. That is likely to be the legacy of Arafat, the terrorist who could never quite bring himself to exchange the gun for the olive branch.

Am I Really Going to Vote for Ariel Sharon?

Not happily, not comfortably, but in a word, yes, I am going to vote for Sharon. I know about Sabra and Shatila, but Ehud Barak has so completely betrayed the hopeful vote I cast for him in 1999 that by now even most of my ambivalence is gone, replaced by an urgency to oust Barak and his band of professional delusionaries.

Barak’s two significant successes during his year and a half in office are an inversion of his mistakes. With his violations of principle, he has rekindled Zionist fervor in Israel, unifying right, center and parts of the left against him. With his concessions, he has exposed the Palestinians’ nasty secret: that they will not make peace with Israel even if we divide Jerusalem, give them three-quarters of the Old City, and surrender the Temple Mount, the Jordan Valley and control of the border crossings.

This is very good for us to know.

The Palestinians’ design has become so clear, in fact, that only a child or an academic could fail to see it. Their official incitement against Jews and Israel does not stop. Their leaders string ours along, making the concessions from one round of talks their starting point for the next round. Their final demand, which we didn’t believe they were serious about, seems to be Israel’s national suicide — the “peace of the grave,” with 3 million Palestinian refugees dancing on it. They boldly deny any Jewish historical connection to the Land of Israel and destroy Jewish historical and religious sites that come into their possession. Aren’t these signs that we are negotiating with barbarians?

Meanwhile, our own leadership continues to impersonate the wise men of Chelm. Every day something new strains one’s credulity. While the Palestinians shoot and bomb, the government continues to funnel money to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and to fatten Arafat’s private bank account in Tel Aviv. Shimon Peres counsels Arafat that to help reelect a sympathetic Israeli government he should reduce the violence until the elections — after which, presumably, he would have permission to increase the violence again. Another government minister, Matan Vilnai, opines that negotiations should stop in response to terror by the PA but insists that violence by the Tanzim, Arafat’s Fatah militia, is not in that category — even while Israel’s security services blame the PA itself for approximately 80 percent of attacks since September.

In 1999, Barak was a security-conscious general skeptical of the Oslo accords who would cautiously pursue a treaty that would give Israel internationally recognized borders and an end to war with the Palestinians. His eloquence about the Jewish connection to Jerusalem made him seem trustworthy to act resolutely, from deeply Jewish motives, even in a time of difficult compromises. “Only those who are completely removed from any connection with their historical legacy and who are estranged from the vision of the nation — from its faith and from the hope it has cherished for generations — only persons in that category could possibly entertain the thought that the State of Israel would actually concede even a part of Jerusalem.”
It was all an act, a lie — just like Arafat’s handshake on the White House lawn, just like the “peace of the brave.” There is no peace and, finally, no sign from the Palestinians that a real peace is what they are aiming at.

So, yes, I’m going to vote for Sharon, even if he is a bully overly confident in military solutions who should have disappeared from public life after the Lebanon war. I don’t think he’ll last long as prime minister — we’ll have elections again soon — and that’s fine with me. I need Sharon only long enough to reduce to an historical footnote Barak’s capitulations to our insatiable Palestinian neighbors and to reverse Israel’s transformation into a defeated nation suing for peace on terms that shame us.

Anyway, maybe a bully is just what we need to cope with the bully Arafat. It will sound harsh, especially to American ears, but perhaps, instead of being coddled and spoken to earnestly, the Palestinians, like wayward children, need to be slapped — hard — once or twice to bring them to their senses.

And if they cannot be brought to their senses, that too is good for us to know.

Barak’s greatest failure is that he has brought Israel to the point where it needs Sharon. But he has, it does, and that’s how I’ll cast my vote.

Barak’s Political Life Depends on Syria Referendum

The interviewer’s question to Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Israeli television over the weekend was clearly one Barak would have preferred to do without.

Yet, as he must have known, it was one that has been on everyone’s minds and lips here since the long-stalled Syrian-Israeli peace track suddenly burst back into life in Washington last week, when Barak held two days of talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

During the interview, Barak replied confidently that he would bring back from the negotiations with Syria “the kind of good, solid, advantageous agreement that will win a sweeping majority” in a referendum.

That, said the premier, was the only kind of agreement he would be prepared to sign.

On Sunday, Barak told his Cabinet that in early rounds of negotiations he would seek a core agreement with Damascus that covers the main issues facing the two sides. He also expressed his determination to pursue the Syrian and Palestinian negotiations simultaneously.

Despite his show of optimism during the television interview, there are many in the pro-peace camp who are concerned over the prospect of the looming referendum — the first ever in Israel’s history.

Barak’s supporters all recognize that the vote will in fact be tantamount to a mid-term election — and if Barak fails, he will have to resign.

Some in the premier’s camp feel, though few are prepared to say so publicly, that he will need a substantial margin to achieve a credible win in the referendum — something like the 56-44 percent edge by which he defeated Benjamin Netanyahu in the election last May.

This way he would not be prone to accusations from the right that his victory would be based on the votes of Israeli Arabs, while losing among the Jewish vote.

Though his supporters are buoyed and comforted by Barak’s own air of confidence, many cannot shake off their anxiety as they survey the opinion polls and the perilous state of the governing coalition.

The polls show the country divided fairly evenly on the issue of withdrawal from all of the Golan Heights in return for a full peace with Syria.

If anything, the anti-withdrawal camp seems to have the edge at this time.

Meanwhile, the National Religious Party has given notice that it will secede from the coalition the moment a land-for-peace accord is signed.

The assertion has come not only from the hard-line party leader, Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy, but even from a relative moderate like legislator Zevulun Orlev.

“The minute it’s signed,” Orlev said Sunday, “we quit.”

Barak has courted the NRP believing that its presence within his government gives him invaluable moral and political backing in the ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians.

The fact that the pro-settler NRP was recently prepared to swallow the dismantlement of several settler outposts in the West Bank in the context of the ongoing interim accords with the Palestinian Authority was seen as an important success for Barak in his effort to represent as wide a constituency as possible in his peacemaking efforts.

The NRP may well not be alone when it secedes over the Golan.

Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, the Russian immigrant party led by Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, is likely to leave, too.

Sharansky’s No. 2, Yuli Edelstein, is chairman of a pro-Golan lobby of Knesset members and is close to the West Bank settlers, too. And Sharansky himself has voiced profound misgivings over the evolving accord with Damascus.

Worse still, from Barak’s viewpoint, Sharansky has gone on record with the prediction that the accord will not win a majority in the referendum. Sharansky said over the weekend he believes the Russian immigrant community, many of whom live on the Golan, will vote against it.

It they do, it would make Barak’s task enormously harder.

After all, it was a significant swing within that community away from Netanyahu in the month or so before the election that gave Barak his convincing victory last May.

The conventional wisdom is that most of the Russian immigrants are hard-liners when it comes to territorial concessions.

Coming as they do from a huge country, they see no reason why tiny Israel should willingly divest itself of the geographical advantages provided by the Golan.

Nor do they have much respect for the peace promises of Moscow’s former client, Syrian President Hafez Assad.

If Sharansky comes out unequivocally against the accord, that in itself would presumably affect the votes of a considerable number of the immigrants.

These uncomfortable cracks within his coalition make it all the more important for Barak to ensure the solid support of his single largest coalition partner, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party.

Shas’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is thought to believe that the Golan is not part of the biblical land of Israel and, moreover, that land-for-peace is a worthy policy if it results in the saving of Israeli lives.

Without a doubt, Yosef has the religious and moral authority to ensure that all 17 Shas legislators vote in favor of an accord with Syria — if he himself decides to support it.

But can he ensure the votes, in a national referendum, of the much more disparate constituency of some 400,000 people who gave Shas their votes in the May election?

Not all of these people are fervently Orthodox; some are barely traditional and voted for Shas more for its platform as the party of the poor than for its religious message.

And as the party of the poor, Shas has pretty little to show its voters for the half-year it has been in Barak’s government.

With the prime minister trying this week to pass his budget bill into law before the year’s end, Shas leader Eli Yishai, the minister of labor and welfare, warned Monday that the budget, poverty statistics and the Syria referendum were all intimately linked in the minds of the many ordinary Israelis who are hard pressed to make ends meet.

The minister spoke just hours after the National Insurance Institute released figures showing an ongoing increase in the number of citizens living below the poverty line.

Granted, the figures refer to the Netanyahu years; however, as Yishai and his party contend, Barak’s economic policies have changed nothing in the lives of the worst-off sectors of the population. While the rich-poor gap in Israel continues to grow, the poor continue to get poorer.

Barak’s reply, echoed by Finance Minister Avraham Shohat, is that returning to economic growth is a long and painful process — one that can be dramatically accelerated by the early achievement of a comprehensive peace.

This reasoning, though theoretically impeccable, lacks cogency for many people, including many Shas supporters, who need to feel an immediate economic boost.

Since the Partition

Nov. 29, 1947: A joyous day in Israel. Photo from”Jerusalem in 3000 Years,” Konemann, 1995.

Fifty years ago this week, on Nov. 29, 1947, the General Assembly ofthe United Nations voted to partition British-held Palestine into aJewish state, an Arab state, and a corpus separatum, comprisingJerusalem and Bethlehem, to remain under the control of the UnitedNations.

The vote enabled Britain, exhausted from the effects of two worldwars, to withdraw gracefully from Palestine. It created a Jewishstate, Israel, for the Jews of Palestine, who had been preparing forthis opportunity for 50 years — since the first Zionist Congress in1897. It allowed for the creation of an Arab state, which only now,50 years later, is fitfully coming into existence. And it gave theSoviet Union, shut out of the Middle East by its wartime allies, along-sought opening into the region.

Two-thirds of the 56 member states of the General Assembly wouldhave to vote “yes” in order for partition to be approved. The daysbefore the final vote were filled with back-room bargaining at U.N.headquarters in New York. The Arab Palestinians, bitterly opposed toany agreement with the Jews, could count on the votes of 10 Moslemcountries. In addition, they had an ally in Greece because 100,000Greek citizens lived in Egypt, mainly in Alexandria, and were hostageto Egyptian policy.

The two great question marks were the Catholic states of Centraland South America, and the Soviet bloc, including the satellitegovernments of Eastern Europe. Keeping Jerusalem under U.N. controlwas a not-too-subtle inducement to the Vatican to exert, in theAmericas, its influence for partition. Most of the Catholic statesdid, in the end, vote yes.

The Soviet Union waffled. Joseph Stalin was no friend of eitherZionism or Jews, but he knew an opportunity to raise problems for theWest when it stared him in the face. The insertion of Jewish Israelinto a Moslem Middle East could only cause resentment among Americaand Britain’s Arab allies. The Soviet bloc voted for partition. (By1955, the Soviet Union began trading arms for Egyptian cotton, andits support for the Arab cause never wavered after that.)

The American government was still arguing about its decision untila few days before the actual vote. The State Department, staffedlargely with professionals who had made their careers in the Arabworld, had little liking for Zionism or Jews. President Truman wasmindful of an election year coming up and had a deeply felt sympathyfor the survivors of the Holocaust. In the end, Truman went againstthe advice of his State Department, led by the much-respectedSecretary of State George Marshall and abetted by Secretary of theNavy James Forrestal, and ordered a yes vote.

The final vote was 33 for, 13 against, with 10 abstentions. Whenthe totals were announced, the hall rang with cheers from thespectator seats, where supporters of a Jewish state had crowded infor what was certainly one of the most fateful moments in the1,900-year history of the Jewish Diaspora.

In the Jewish displaced persons camp in Germany, where I wasworking at the time, there was also wild enthusiasm. Those of us whowere engaged in bringing Holocaust survivors to Palestine alongillegal immigrant routes, thought that, at last, we could see ourefforts producing tangible results. We were correct, but it wasn’tgoing to be as easy as we imagined.

The reasons for this became evident the very next day inJerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa, where Arabs burned Jewish stores andattacked Jews in the streets, killing a score or more. Similarattacks occurred in the Jewish quarters of a number of Arab capitals.Israel’s War of Independence did not begin on May 14, 1948, when thestate came into being; it began on Nov. 30, 1947, with the violentArab reaction to partition.

Fifty years later, what are the long-term results of the partitiondecision? First, for friend and foe alike, is the creation andsurvival of Israel. This was by no means assured; Gen. Marshall,among others, did not object to partition per se, but he saw theJewish cause as almost hopeless and worried about what the UnitedStates might be called upon to do in the event of a Jewish collapsein Palestine.

The Soviet Union had its day in the Middle East sun as theprincipal backer of Egypt, Syria and the Palestine LiberationOrganization, but it is no more, and few regret its departure.

Great Britain, no longer in need of Palestine to protect the SuezCanal and maintain its lifeline to the East, held out until the SuezWar of 1956, when Gen. Nasser of Egypt defeated a combinedBritish-French attempt to keep the canal. It marked the end of theBritish Empire, an event presaged by the withdrawal from Palestine.

The United States, reluctantly and slowly, became Israel’s primaryprotector, a relationship that developed only after the departure ofthe Eisenhower administration. Today, aided by the broad acceptanceof American popular culture and the demise of the Soviet Union as analternate source of support, both Israel and the Arab world havebecome wedded to Washington to a degree unimaginable just a decadeago. America has become the arbiter of the conflict accompanying theemergence of a Palestinian state just as, 50 years ago, it servedthat role in the creation of the Israeli state.

The wheel that began to revolve 50 years ago this week has turnedfull circle.

All rights reserved by author.

Contributing writer Yehuda Lev writes from Providence, R.I.