The Little Intifadas of Israel’s Left


Until recently the greater part of Israel’s left had reconciled itself to the government’s handling of the Intifada. Two events shattered this composure. On January 10, while the PA (Palestinian Authority) attempted to enforce a cease fire, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) destroyed 58 homes in the Gazan town of Rafah. Four days later the army assassinated Ra’ed Carmi, a Fatah militant.

Ze’ev Schiff, a military pundit with close ties to Israel’s establishment, called the destruction of homes in Rafah an “action devoid of logic.” (Ha’aretz January 13.) Schiff came close to labeling the act as terrorist: “There is a kind of self-defense that requires massive armed force. In actions like this, innocent civilians are sometimes injured, but they are not deliberately targeted – that is the rule. This is what distinguishes a legitimate military action from a terrorist oneé” By contrast, he writes, “What happened at the refugee camp in Rafiah (sic), where the IDF destroyed 58 homes leaving hundreds without shelter, was pure destruction, an act shaming the IDF and the Israeli public.” On the same day, the paper’s main editorial carried the title, “Blind Cruelty”. “By this act,” the editor wrote, “the IDF risks losing the support of much of the Israeli public. Hitherto, during the months of the uprising, the public has understood the need to use controversial methods in an effort to prevent or limit harm to Israel’s citizens. [Yet] no Israeli can agree to blind cruelty such as this.”

The words in Ha’aretz signaled the presence of tectonic movements fracturing the left’s composure. The cracks betokened a major change in public opinion. Unfortunately, however, the effect is limited by the same infirmity that has kept the Palestinian Intifada from yielding results: the left, until now, has refused to face the singular lesson of the last decade, the failure of Oslo.

What has changed?

The events of January marked a culmination. Various factors had combined to disturb the Israeli consensus. These were as follows:

1. Doubts about the leadership of Ariel Sharon

At Camp David in July 2000, the Palestinian side rejected the proposals of Israeli PM Ehud Barak. Two months later the new Intifada broke out. This double blow persuaded Israelis, right and left, that the Palestinians simply do not want peace. The war against the Intifada, accordingly, was widely viewed as one of “no choice”. In general, Israelis have a hard time engaging in wars of choice, because they think of themselves as a righteous people, victims of aggression – not aggressors.

The army’s assassination of Ra’ed Carmi, breaking a relatively successful cease fire, raised doubts in the hearts of many on the left who had placed their hopes in a new Sharon: not the man they had dubbed a murderer two decades ago, but a battered old warrior, touched by the sorrows of life, who had gleaned the lessons of his tarnished past. When Sharon called Arafat “irrelevant,” however, voicing his wish to replace him with someone more tractable, when on top of that he grounded the PA chief in Ramallah (where he still sits, as of this writing), faith in this new Sharon began to waver. Not that the left loves Arafat. But Sharon’s procedure, in the lack of a visible political alternative, seems adventurous in the extreme. There rises the specter of the old Sharon, principal actor in the tragical-farcical Lebanese adventure of 1982. Then too he had promised an alternative leadership waiting around the corner.

2. The failure of military methods

The left also sees how counterproductive the use of the army has been.

Yoel Marcus of Ha’aretz possesses good antennae for the mood of the political center in Israel. He wrote on February 8:

“What measures haven’t Barak and Sharon tried in order to crush Palestinian violence? Bombings from F-16 jets – in our wildest dreams, we never thought that this would be the use we would make of them! Every possible method of destruction. Blockades around the villages. Closures. Tanks. Helicopters. Pre-emptive actions. Assassinations. Today we hear the former Shin Beth chiefs saying that the assassinations-policy hasn’t proved worthwhileé: considering the harm done, our situation is worse than the other side’s. True, we’ve caused them a lot of physical damage, but we’ve aroused their hatred and motivation. There is nothing more dangerous or cruel than an enemy in despair.”

3. Where is America?

The doves of Israel have found no common language with the Bush Administration. These are not the heady Clinton days. America’s position keeps changing with its short-term interests. The lack of a strong US policy has resulted in a vacuum. The left has understood: if the White House won’t restrain Israel, then the left itself will have to do more.

4. The Moral Aspect

When the left came to the understandings mentioned above, these gave rise to a new realization – perhaps the most significant of all: the recognition that the war against the Intifada is turning Israeli soldiers against their will into war criminals. In the weekend supplement of the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot on January 25, fifty reserve officers wrote as follows: “We understand today that the price of the Occupation is the loss of the IDF’s human image and the corruption of Israeli society as a whole. We know that the end of all the [Israeli] settlements will be their evacuation. We hereby proclaim that we shall no longer take part in the War for the Peace of the Settlementsé”

Many will rightly wonder why it took so long for such a letter to appear. The reason concerns the social and ideological stratum to which the fifty officers belong. One of them, Amit Mashiakh, told Challenge: “We do not want to stray from the country’s consensus. We don’t want to be part of the consensus of the left [i.e., the radical left – RBE].” In other words, these officers “came out of the closet” only because they felt they were expressing a groundswell of opinion among circles within the establishment. We should note, by the way, that the avant-garde of conscientious refusal had already made its appearance in August 2001: 62 twelfth-graders wrote a letter to Sharon declaring their refusal to be drafted, saying, “It is our intention to obey the dictates of our consciences and refuse to take part in actions that oppress the Palestinian people. These actions merit the name ‘terrorist’.”

Returning to the refusing officers: their number has rapidly increased from fifty to 282, of whom three so far have entered prison. The phenomenon has led to a deep debate within the society, winning significant public support. The debate even embroiled the editorial staff of Ha’aretz (the opinion-maker of Israeli liberals), although in the end the paper came out against refusal.

The left gropes in three directions

During the freeze in negotiations, three tendencies have developed on the left:

1. Unilateral separation from the Palestinians

The advocates of unilateral separation have emerged from the central wing of the Labor Party. Though not homogeneous, this group expresses a mood that may well find sympathy on the moderate right. Among them are former PM Ehud Barak, former Police Minister Shlomo Ben Ami and MK Haim Ramon. Among ideologues, the group has recently gained several outstanding figures, including author A.B. Yehoshua and historian Yigal Eilam.

On February 8, Yehoshua published an eleven-point program in the Ha’aretz weekend supplement under the title, “Hovat ha-Gvul” (“The Border Imperative”). The first part is a weird exercise in the double standard. (See box.) In the second part, Yehoshua proposes separation: “é it is clear to everyone that, both from the point of view of the hawkish shift in public opinion and of the chaotic position of the Palestinian Authority, there is no prospect of an agreement with the Palestinians any time soon. The cycle of blood and the brutality on both sides will continue to intensify. Therefore, the only way to bring about relative calm in the situation in order to create an infrastructure for an agreement in the future, is by means of a unilateral separation plan to be implemented by Israel – whether with the tacit agreement of the Palestinians, the agreement or the blessing of the international community, or, if there is no other choice, with only the agreement of the civil majority in Israel.”

After such separation, if the Palestinians continue their violence, “the price of the war éwill be far greater.” He adds on a threatening note: “Let us not forget that after the withdrawal, too, the Palestinians will be dependent on Israel for electric power and fuel.”

Here are a few of Yehoshua’s ideas, which will give the general picture. “Israel will evacuate at least [an additional – RBE] 40 percent of the area it conquered in the Six-Day War, leaving the Palestinians in control of about 85 percent of the territories.” “All of the settlers in the territories who will be evacuated – about 50,000 people – will move to Israeli territory or to the settlement blocs, and will receive full compensationé” “Greater Jerusalem will, in the meantime, remain in Israel’s hands, but without additional Israeli construction in the Palestinian section of the city.” “A fence and border mechanismséwill be erected around Jerusalem and around the three settlement blocsé” (One wonders: And not on the rest of the border?) Palestinians will be permitted to work in Israel, because “we have a moral responsibility toward the Palestinians, not to Thais or Romanians.” “The ‘envelope’ of the Palestinian state in the Jordan Rift Valley (without settlements) and along the Egyptian border will remain in Israel’s handsé” The ultra-orthodox, exempted from military service, will have to do guard duty here. Israeli Arabs may volunteer.

Yehoshua covers himself by calling this a first step, prior to the final arrangement. But why doesn’t he give his vision of the last step too? Is that not the responsibility of a leading light of the left? Or is he afraid to give this vision, because he knows too well what the last step ought to be?

Another advocate of separation is the historian Yigal Eilam. He sent an article to Ha’aretz entitled “A Time to Refuse,” but it was rejected. It appeared instead on an E-mail list in early February. Eilam voices strong support for refusal. Here is a characteristic passage: “‘Policy’ and ‘law’ aren’t magic words that give one the right to carry out crimes against human beings. If they were, it wouldn’t have been possible to judge what the Nazis did to the Jews and other peoples. Didn’t Nazi policy proceed ‘in accordance with the law’ and with the support of the majority? Rather, every policy and every law must stand a simple test: are they aimed toward the good or the harm of human beings? A law designed to harm the existence of human beings, be they Jews or Palestinians, should be called by its proper name: patently illegal. éThe situation in the Territories is fundamentally illegalé because there rules a monstrous regime, a regime of sheer Apartheid, designed to secure the existence and well-being of 200,000 Jewish settlers at the expense of the existence, well-being and freedom of 3,200,000 Palestinians who are citizens of nothing.”

Eilam concludes: “We must purge ourselves of the Territories and the settlements. This decision has no connection to the behavior or intentions of the Palestinians. If the Palestinian terror continues [after separation – RBE], it will then be permissible to combat it with full force and effectiveness, without qualms of conscience and without any limits (my emphasis – RBE), precisely after the curse of the Territories has been lifted from us.”

The tendency represented by Yehoshua and Eilam merges with that of the refusing officers, who see their movement as a patriotic one. We find no expression of concern about the future of the Palestinians. After the separation that suits it, Israel will have done its bit. The Palestinians can remain in their socio-economic backwater, commuting into Israel as manual laborers. If they don’t like the arrangement and make further troubles, Israel will be entitled to hit them with all it’s got.

The idea of unilateral separation appeals to many Israelis. The slogan of Yitzhak Rabin’s election campaign in 1992 went, “To get Gaza out of Tel Aviv!” Ehud Barak’s, in 1999, went: “To get out of Lebanon!” Now it is the turn of the Territories. These Israelis would extract themselves from the swamp they created, leaving the Palestinians with the malaria.

2. The Coalition for Peace

Compared to the unilateral separationists, the Coalition for Peace includes circles from the left wing of Labor and the right wing of Meretz (the Citizens’ Rights Movement), as well as moderates from the PA. Its Israeli component consists of doves who want to extract the Labor Party from the national-unity government. These include Yossi Beilin (Labor), Yossi Sarid (the leader of Meretz), and members of Peace Now. Their slogan resembles that of the separationists: “To get out of the Territories, to come back to ourselves!” The Coalition does not propose, however, a unilateral withdrawal, but only a negotiated one. It keeps a long arm’s length from the phenomenon of conscientious objection.

Knowing how hard it is for the Israeli public to stomach Arafat, the Coalition stresses the membership of the”good guys and gals” from the PA: e.g., Sari Nusseiba and Hanan Ashrawi. Yet Beilin knows how relevant Arafat is:

“The Sharon government’s édecision that Arafat is not a real partner could bring disaster: it could remove all chance of peace and normal life for a long time to come, provoke a further deterioration of internal security, and worsen the economic stagnation that has already resulted from this crisis. Israel has tried for 26 years to find a peace partner who will control the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It has found one in Arafat. [My emphasis – RBE.]” (Yossi Beilin, “Why Israel Needs Arafat,” Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2002.)

Beilin has recently gained support from leading industrialists, former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon, and Itamar Rabinovich, Rector of Tel Aviv University. They are urging him to run for the leadership of something, presumably the Labor Party. But unlike the separationists, Beilin’s Coalition of Peace has no chance of winning broad popularity. It is imprisoned in the Oslo concept. It has no friends in the White House, and its position in the Labor Party is weak. Its demand that Labor withdraw from the government has no support at this time.

3. The Arafat Bloc

There is yet a third group, with a distinctive agenda quite independent of the prevailing public mood. It too seeks to revive the legitimacy of Arafat, but unlike the Coalition, it supports conscientious refusal. This group includes the left wing of Meretz, the Peace Bloc (Gush Shalom), Maki (the Communist Party) and Balad (the party of Azmi Bishara). On February 9, it managed to mobilize about 5000 people for a demonstration. Its slogan: “The Occupation Is Killing Us All!”

Before the current Intifada, this Arafat bloc supported the Oslo Accords without reservation. Whenever Israel violated them, it took the part of the PA. It also gave full parliamentary backing to the Labor Party. The collapse of Oslo, resulting in a national-unity government, left it outside the political arena.

On February 2, three hundred of these Israeli Arafat backers paid a visit to the PA chief at his unofficial prison in Ramallah. Thus they took part in the wave of pilgrimages that fill his empty hours, now that he cannot fly around the world and avoid (as he did for seven years) the problems of unemployment and poverty in the areas for which he is responsible.

One wonders how the Arafat backers can fail to see what Meron Benvenisti described in “A Vision No Longer Relevant” (Ha’aretz February 7): “é The Israelis have exposed the emptiness behind the ‘sovereign status’ of ‘President Arafat’. Ever since the Palestinian leader returned from his Tunisian exile, he has been a domesticated version of himself. He has drunk Israeli water, read by Israeli electric light, sent faxes via the Israeli telephone network and financed his secret activities with money that has flowed to his coffers through Israel’s system. The symbolic ‘return’ has been accompanied by its shadow: a surrender to Israel’s infinitely greater power and a readiness to receive from her the crumbs of authority. The Oslo process was in essence the process of Arafat’s transformation into the leader of yet another Israeli pressure group, alongside the ultra-orthodox, the settlers, the Arabs in Israel, the farmers and the importers – albeit with the trappings of power, uniforms braided in gold, and the goose march of a ‘presidential regime’.

“When Arafat decided to break the chains – or when he was forced to do so – the Israelis decided to bring the farce to an end. To prolong the torture, however, they didn’t cut off the electric power. They even tolerated the secret dealings of Arafat’s ‘personal financial adviser’ (Muhammad Rashid). It is scarcely surprising that a man who

electric power. They even tolerated the secret dealings of Arafat’s ‘personal financial adviser’ (Muhammad Rashid). It is scarcely surprising that a man who has been exposed as ridiculous, and who nonetheless persists in his pretense, fails to gain respect. If he wants so badly to be a tormented saint, let him go underground or continue the struggle from abroad.”

Quo vadis, O left?

The three currents described above are making ripples but no waves. Despite their varying agendas, all remain blind to the basic issue. It is the very same blindness that earlier led them to support the Oslo Accords: they fail to perceive the feelings and aspirations of the Palestinian people.

The first Intifada broke out because the Palestinians rejected the Occupation. The second broke out because they rejected Oslo. They stopped believing in Israeli intentions. They became fed up with the corruption in Arafat’s regime. They saw the prison that Israel and the PA were preparing for them, and they said “No thanks.”

For the PA and its chief, therefore, it would have been suicidal to continue on the Oslo road. Arafat has become his own victim. He likes to say, “I’m not asking for the moon.” Yet the moon won’t help him now. The problem is Oslo. And the problem with Oslo is its double moral standard, that is, its embodiment of the principle that any agreement must leave Israel in the dominant position. (See “The Trouble With Oslo,” Challenge #64 or

Israel has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Perhaps it has lost forever the chance to gain acceptance in the Middle East. Perhaps not. But this much is clear: peace, if it comes, will be expensive. Here is the price tag: Israel must withdraw completely from Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and abandon its insistence on being the major regional power. It would have to give up its racist attitude toward the Arab world.

The Israeli left, accordingly, cannot provide a real alternative as long as it takes its cues from the likes of Jibril Rajub, Hanan Ashrawi, Muhammad Rashid and Yasser Arafat. It will have to look beyond them, into the hearts of the refugee from Jebalya and the peasant from Biddya.

Roni Ben Efrat is the editor of Challenge magazine.