A VOTE FOR MITZNA IS A VOTE FOR SHARON
This is an extended version of a column in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, December 22, 2002.
Just over a month ago, Mitzna appeared to offer a new hope to Israeli politics. He was even perceived by some as the potential Israeli de Gaulle. Throughout the years of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, the Israeli political system has managed to generate only two alternatives: eternal negotiations while preserving the occupation and expanding settlements - the Oslo model of the Labor party, or slow elimination of the Palestinian people - Sharon’s model. The hope that many (including myself (1)) attached to Mitzna was that a third alternative is possible as well, following the model of the end of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon - an immediate withdrawal from the territories that most Israelis are willing to evacuate (all of Gaza and about 90% of the West Bank), and the opening of serious negotiations over the rest.
But by now, it is obvious that a vote for Mitzna is a vote for Sharon. Sharon and Ben-Eliezer are already planning the next unity government. The Labor primaries on December 10th abided by Ben-Eliezer's call that the party "must elect a list that speaks to the center and a little bit to the right" (Ha'aretz staff, Ha'aretz. December 10, 2002). As summed up in Ha'aretz, "the Labor list looks like a victory for Ben Eliezer over Mitzna. Fuad’s supporters, from Sneh to Avital, from Shiri to Hertzog and from Ronen Tzur to Orna Angel pushed out Mitzna’s adjutants, Beilin, Reshef, Yossi Katz and Yael Dayan. Perhaps only one part of the equation is correct. Mitzna didn't exactly go out of his way to assist those who rallied round his flag, while Ben Eliezer, who is still licking his wounds from the battle for the leadership for the Labor Party, toiled night and day to help a long list of candidates, but primarily to castigate Beilin..." The outcome is "a list even Sharon could lead" (Yossi Verter, Ha'aretz, December 11, 2002)
The exclusion of Yossi Beilin from the Labor’s list is often interpreted in the Israeli media as just a matter of a personal conflict between him and Ben Eliezer. Here is just one example for the theme that repeated itself in all papers: "Beilin is another story. One of Labor’s favorite sons, who in 1999 made it to second place in the list, was yesterday purged from the party. He has no one to blame but himself" (ibid). But what was this conflict about? Beilin demanded that Labor step out of the unity government, and even managed to gather substantial momentum in the party for this move, which finally forced Ben-Eliezer to resign from the government. Ben Eliezer and the Labor officials view Beilin as the one responsible for the unneeded nuisance of elections. As a first step towards returning to the unity government, they found it necessary to eliminate this source of trouble. In accomplishing this, they were not even worried about the potential loss of votes that will follow Beilin, who moved to the competing party Meretz. Their own seats in the next government are guaranteed, regardless of how many votes Labor will get. Indeed, Ben Eliezer circles are talking openly about returning to Sharon’s government.
But this is not the only implication of the exclusion of Beilin and his circle from the Party list. Beilin is also the symbol of the Oslo road, which has been associated until now with the Labor party. As the Israeli media summarized the matter, in the Labor primaries, the party dissociated itself officially from the Oslo conception. I too have objected to the Oslo road, which I view as the establishment of an apartheid regime. But there is still a huge difference between the Bantustans which Rabin and Beilin founded in the occupied territories and the prison camps constructed by Sharon, aided by Barak and Ben Eliezer, or between the Oslo apartheid, and "transfer". In dissociating itself from Oslo, Labor places itself in the Sharon camp.
There are still those tempted to believe that despite his party, Mitzna could manage somehow to pull Israel out of the territories. But the fact of the matter is that Mitzna has been at least a passive partner to the expulsion of Beilin and the shift to the right in the Labor party. "In a transparent effort to situate himself at the center of the political map, and not at its extreme left, Mitzna said this week [of late November] that he was not Yossi Beilin. For this reason, apparently, he did not reject the possibility of the establishment of a national unity government after the elections... Mitzna also aspired to depict himself as a tough fighter against terrorism and stressed his conclusion that the Palestinians, and not anyone in Israel, are to blame for the hostilities that have been going on since September, 2000" (Uzi Benziman, Ha'aretz , Nov 29, 2002).
While Mitzna just abstained from any support for Beilin in the Labor primaries, his close aids were more explicit:
"Sources in the party identified with Mitzna said that they didn't want Beilin, who is one of those responsible for the Oslo Accords, to win a high place on the party’s Knesset list, since this could be used by the Likud in its propaganda. "Beilin is too independent," said the sources. "It is difficult to navigate him, to tie his hands up. His initiatives, such as the negotiations with [Palestinian Information Minister Yasser] Abed Rabbo, could cause us great damage," they added. "There is no doubt that Beilin is a very intelligent person, one who is talented and skillful. On the other hand, the world can’t be run according to him" (Yossi Verter, Ha’aretz, December 04, 2002.)
In front of our eyes, the Israeli de Gaulle is turning into a new Ehud Barak. He is surrounded by former aids of Barak who run his campaign, and this campaign starts looking like an exact copy of Barak's 1999 campaign. As Uzi Benziman reported in Ha'aretz already at the end of November, "Mitzna said that … his generous offers to the Palestinians, which adopt the Clinton plan from Camp David, depend on reaching an agreement that will put an end to the conflict. Only on this condition will he agree to an almost total withdrawal from all the territories, the division of Jerusalem, the dismantling of all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. (Ha'aretz, Nov 29, 2002).
This is precisely the text of Barak with his "generous offers". What blew up the Camp David negotiations was Barak's insistence (opposed by Beilin at the time) that the Palestinian side declares ‘end of conflict’, under the conditions dictated by Israel, and without solving the problems of the big settlement blocks, Jerusalem, and the right of return. What was new and inspiring in Mitzna's original platform was precisely the idea that Israel can withdraw from most of the territories prior to any "end of conflict" declaration, which can only be reached in subsequent negotiations over these remaining difficult problems. But by now, all that Mitzna promises is to take us back to Barak's point of departure.
If, as to be expected, the Palestinians would again reject this demand, Mitzna "is thinking in terms of a tough unilateral separation in which Israel will be the one to decide the line of withdrawal, in accordance with demographic and topographic considerations, and will see itself as free to send the IDF into the territories of the Palestinian Authority (or state) at any time to fight terror" (ibid). Under this scenario, Mitzna adds nothing regarding the evacuation of settlements.
Thus, Mitzna appears to have returned to Barak's 'separation' plan, in which a fence will be built around the Palestinian prisons, isolating them from Israel and from each other (as happened already in the Gaza strip). This is the plan that Sharon has been actually executing energetically the last few months, without Mitzna's help. To make sure Mitzna will not err in reciting Barak's text, the Labor primaries added to its top list of candidates Barak's closest aid - Danny Yatom - who composed for Barak the "White book" against the Palestinians already in October 2000.
The roll which Ben Eliezer and Sharon designate for Mitzna is to convince the Israeli majority that wants to get out of the settlements, that it is impossible to do this now, because the Palestinians are not willing to accept an 'end of conflict'. Barak had a sweeping success in conveying this message following the Camp David summit, but after two difficult years, his achievements are beginning to deteriorate, and the majority opposing settlements has even grown from the traditional 60% to 72%(2). Now it would take a fresh dove, like Mitzna, to convince the majority again that there is ‘nobody to talk to’ on the Palestinian side.
The right wing "National Unity" party has coined the slogan that will be the mantra of the coming elections: "You can determine who will be in Sharon’s next government - Mitzna or Liberman [- their own candidate]". But there is also a third choice: a strong opposition on the left.
(2) The polls are consistent on this, though one has to apply some scrutiny in digging up the results from the language that surrounds them. E.g. reporting on the latest poll of the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University, Prof. Ephraim Ya'ar and Dr. Tamar Hermann write that "regarding evacuating settlements in Judea and Samaria… only 20 percent are prepared to evacuate all the settlements including the large blocs in a situation of advanced negotiations, and a similar number oppose the evacuation of any settlements. Fifty-two percent are prepared to evacuate remote and isolated settlements, but not the large blocs" (Ha'aretz , December 10, 2002). If we look just at the numbers, what this text means is that there are 20% of the Jewish Israelis who are willing to dismantle ALL settlements. (This is the hard core of the Israeli left.) In addition, 52% are willing to dismantle all settlements except the large blocks, which would enable evacuating 90% of the West Bank. These figures combined, there is a majority of 72% for dismantling the settlements on 90% of the West Bank. Miraculously, 71% of the participants in that poll believe that Sharon is going to evacuate these settlements eventually. This reflects Sharon’s elections propaganda. Reading the polls, he has released several declarations hinting a vague willingness to do so in the future. In any case, if Mitzna and Labor wanted to evacuate settlements, it is not the Israeli majority that stops them.