“Waiting for an Israeli De Gaulle”

Reflecting the prevailing mood of decolonization that was then sweeping the Third World, French Premier General Charles De Gaulle announced to his fellow citizens on November 4, 1960 that France’s colonial enterprise in Algeria was unsustainable. De Gaulle mustered the courage to tell his people that foreign domination of another people is wrong and that he would henceforth work to reorient relations between France and Algeria “from government of Algeria by metropolitan France to an Algerian Algeria. That means an emancipated Algeria…an Algeria which, if Algerians so wish-and I believe this to be the case-will have its own government, its own institutions, its own laws.”

If only there emerged an Israeli De Gaulle who would tell Israeli citizens with unvarnished honesty that its brutal military occupation of Palestine is immoral and unsustainable, and who would have the perspicacity to work for an emancipated Palestine, then perhaps the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not seem as intractable as it does today.

Former Labor Party Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had the credentials to be such an Israeli De Gaulle. His impeccable military background and life-long dedication to the security of Israel certainly convinced many Israelis to follow him on the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians. Although Rabin’s oft-stated opposition to Palestinian statehood reflected a certain disingenuousness regarding what it would take to create a just and lasting peace, towards the end of his life, there was evidence that his thinking was evolving to the point at which he was beginning to understand that Israel’s colonial infrastructure in Palestine would have to be dismantled and Palestinians would have to achieve something more than nominal autonomy in order to put an end to the conflict once and for all.

Perhaps because of this evolution in Rabin’s attitude, a Jewish fundamentalist assassinated him moments after he declared at a peace rally in Tel Aviv that “the way of peace is more preferable than the way of war.” In an ironic historical twist, Rabin was murdered 35 years to the day after De Gaulle pledged to work for an emancipated Algeria. Whether Rabin would have eventually pledged to work for an emancipated Palestine and would have led his country out of its disastrous military occupation there must be left to conjecture.

Ever since the assassination of Rabin, Israelis and the Palestinians have waited for the emergence of another candidate to be the Israeli De Gaulle and extract Israel from its colonial entanglement with Palestine. Perhaps a viable candidate to play this role has finally emerged in the figure of Amram Mitzna, who won a three-way race to head Israel’s Labor Party. The contest, held earlier this week, positions Mitzna at the forefront of the Labor Party’s slate of candidates for the next Knesset which will be elected in January 2003. If Labor receives the most votes in the election, Mitzna stands to become Israel’s next prime minister.

Mitzna, a former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) general who played a prominent role in Israel’s crackdown against the Palestinians during their first uprising against Israeli occupation in the late 1980s, certainly has the credentials to speak authoritatively to the Israeli public about its security needs. However, Mitzna is not solely a military man; although yet to hold a national political position, he has already demonstrated an aptitude for governance, winning high praises from many as mayor of Haifa, an ethnically-mixed city of Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens.

According to recent Israeli public opinion polls, Amram Mitzna and the Labor Party face an uphill battle in their attempt to out-poll the Likud Party and its leader-likely to be either current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or former Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu-and earn the right to form the next government. What is clear is that to overcome their deficit in the polls, Mitzna and Labor will have to offer the Israeli electorate an alternative to the Likud’s repressive, iron-fisted, (in)security-based policy toward the Palestinians. Any attempt by Labor to replicate the Likud’s “security” platform will be rejected by the Israeli populace which in recent years has come to view the Labor Party as being soft on security issues. If the campaign revolves solely around the question of which party can crackdown harder on the Palestinians, Israelis would likely view Mitzna as a “Mini Me” relative to Likud’s Dr. Evil: Sharon or Netanyahu.

Instead, to stand a chance in the upcoming general election, Mitzna and Labor must distinguish themselves as much as possible from the failed Likud policy of settlement expansion and military re-occupation of the West Bank. Indeed, Mitzna appears to be taking this road and articulating policy positions which have the possibility of putting an end to the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict: unilaterally dismantling illegal Israeli settlements in Gaza and ending Israel’s military occupation there; returning to the negotiating table with the Palestinians based on the substantial progress that was made between them at Taba, Egypt in January 2001; and, if negotiations do not succeed, unilaterally dismantling outlying settlements in the West Bank and marking Israel’s border with an independent Palestinian state.

Although currently down in the polls, due to the unpredictability of the Israeli political system, no one should yet rule out the possibility that Mitzna and the Labor Party will be able to engineer a victory. (In 1996, Netanyahu dug his way out of a 25% hole to eke out a victory against incumbent Prime Minister Shimon Peres.) And, if this happens, perhaps Israel’s De Gaulle will finally have arrived.

Josh Ruebner is co-founder of Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel (JPPI) and is a former Analyst of Middle East Affairs for Congressional Research Service (CRS).