Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Triumph of Pragmatism

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By Amotz Asa-El


In its first years, when Israeli politics was dominated by the Labor movement, the opposition comprised parties that preached the theoretical Right’s main tenets in all countries: nationalism and capitalism. However, despite momentary situations of contention, like the 1952 reparations agreement with West Germany, nationalist causes were relatively abstract. This is why when the main right-wing parties merged in 1965 and formed the precursor of the Likud, their main goal was a retreat from Israel’s socialist economy.

All this changed dramatically in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, when Left and Right ended up on the opposite ends of the territorial debate that dominated Israel’s political discourse for the following 40 years. Though there were exceptions to this rule, in general this meant that Labor espoused land for peace, while its opponents from the Right supported the idea, for either security or ideological reasons, of retaining most or all of the territories captured in 1967. It was these convictions that led the Likud to dot the West Bank with some 200 settlements in the early 1980s, and Labor to launch the Oslo process in 1993.

Now, judging by the differences between Israel’s three main leaders - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu - much of this dichotomy seems obsolete. While in their social and professional backgrounds the three hail from different quarters of the Israeli elite, developments in the Israeli understanding of the Middle East conflict have largely taken the ideological sting out of their distinctive diplomatic outlooks.

Netanyahu, whose father was a conservative ideologue, later became a diplomat, and Olmert, who was raised by a right-wing legislator and later became a corporate lawyer, are quintessential representatives of the secular Right’s second generation. As such, both were educated from childhood to oppose Labor economically and nationally. Olmert, in fact, abstained in the historic Knesset vote over the peace agreements with Egypt back in 1979 while Netanyahu, as leader of the opposition in 1993, led the public battle against the Oslo Accords.

Barak, by contrast, was raised in a kibbutz, where socialism was both a conviction and a norm, and Arab-Jewish harmony a supreme quest. His political baptism by the centre-left Yitzhak Rabin, who appointed him minister of the interior several months before his assassination, was therefore seen as natural following his distinguished military career. Barak’s attempt half-a-decade later to cut the Middle East conflict’s Gordian Knot by offering the Palestinians some 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza (which Israel still controlled at the time) including east Jerusalem and a swathe of pre-1967 Israel, was in line with his background in Labor’s milieu.
Now all of this is history.

The first to compromise his ideological upbringing was Netanyahu, who already as a prime-ministerial candidate in 1996 announced he would respect the Oslo Accords, if elected. Then, as prime minister, he met repeatedly with Yasser Arafat and eventually ceded to him most of Hebron, Judaism’s second holiest city. Netanyahu’s break with the ideals on which he was raised was lamented at the time by his father, Benzion Netanyahu, who was the personal secretary of Revisionist Zionism’s founder Vladimir Jabotinsky.

Still, Benjamin Netanyahu’s retreat from his upbringing shrinks by comparison with Olmert’s.

As Ariel Sharon’s deputy, the former hardline mayor of Jerusalem emphatically joined his boss’s ideological U-turn, first when he declared Palestinian statehood inevitable and then when he pulled all Israeli troops and civilians out of the Gaza Strip. Eventually, when he succeeded Sharon, Olmert went much further when he declared his intention to cede most of the West Bank as well, in order to set Israel’s final borders, as he put it.

While Olmert and Netanyahu moved to the left, Barak veered right.

Having seen the Palestinian violence that followed his overtures in 2000 at Camp David, and having been handed half-a-year later the worst electoral defeat in Israeli history, Barak resigned and took a long leave from politics. When he finally returned last year to run for Labor’s leadership, he no longer spoke of instant peace deals, and instead fashioned his ticket on restoring the IDF’s spirit of initiative and originality which had been damaged during the Second Lebanon War of 2006.

Now, as minister of defence, Barak is indeed focused on rehabilitating the IDF to the extent that when it comes to peace initiatives he, the Laborite and former Kibbutznik, is, on some issues, outflanking Olmert from the right. This reversal of roles reached such an absurd extent that it took a large effort to have Barak join Olmert as he flew to the Annapolis conference. Barak said at the time to his aides that the meeting could not produce peace, and evidently had no desire to be associated with another failed peace initiative. By contrast, Olmert’s colleague in Kadima, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni – whose father Eitan Livni was also a veteran lawmaker of the Israeli right – believes a deal with President Mahmoud Abbas’ administration is both feasible and desirable.

Olmert, Barak and Netanyahu all share an increasingly pragmatic terminology and post-messianic style of argument in their pronouncements concerning the future of the territories in particular, and Israel’s relations with its neighbours in general.
Even in explaining his departure from Sharon’s government, Netanyahu refrained from arguing that Gaza should be retained because it is part of the historic Land of Israel. Instead, he elaborated on his disbelief in the retreat’s ability to pacify Gaza, predicting it would only embolden its Islamist extremists and increase the Strip’s usage as a springboard for attacks on Israel. Moreover, Netanyahu said then, as he does today, that he agreed in principle with the rationale of leaving Gaza, and only opposed its extent, pace and unilateralism.

More deeply, this decline of ideologies reflects a broad-based disillusionment in mainstream Israel with one-dimensional formulas that promise instant solutions to deep seated problems.

Having experimented already with “Greater Israel” in the 1980s and “Land for Peace” in the 1990s, many Israelis feel the two schools of thought represented utopias rather than practical plans for action, and now seek in their place a pragmatism that would make living with the conflict on a day-to-day basis tolerable. This is what gave birth to the anti-terror barrier - which all three men support. It is also what gave rise to the Kadima phenomenon, an instant political party formed by veterans of both of Israel’s two traditional main movements who grew disillusioned with the utopias for which they had fought for years and, in some cases, decades.

Now it seems tactics are becoming the focus of their differences, as they generally share some fundamental strategic understandings and aims. All three agree that Israel’s main enemy, like the entire free world’s, is no longer Arab or Palestinian nationalism, but Islamic fundamentalism. There are no serious differences among them concerning Israel’s ongoing war on terror. Netanyahu in fact said on TV that he was consulted before the attack on a secret Syrian installation last November. And like his two rivals he concedes that a settlement with the Palestinians should entail major concessions.

For now, the incumbent is Olmert, who is having Foreign Minister Livni quietly negotiate a future agreement with her Palestinian colleague Ahmad Qurei. Just what is happening in the two’s frequent meetings is largely unknown, and as such alarms much of the political Right. Then again, concern there is not mainly over the prospective redrawing of Israel’s borders, which most Israelis are prepared to accept, but over a possible compromise on Jerusalem. Olmert has assured his right-leaning coalition partner Shas that “Jerusalem is not on the table.” While many doubt the accuracy of that statement, most simply doubt a peace deal is reachable as long as the Palestinians are divided between empowered fanatics and disempowered pragmatists.

Olmert is surely aware of this, and is believed to be seeking a template deal, one that would focus on the principles of a settlement, but leave its implementation for a future Palestinian political system that will have transformed and produced a pragmatic consensus of sorts. Such a prospect may currently seem distant to most observers of contemporary Palestinian society. However, to understand how yesterday’s inflexible ideologues can become today’s pragmatic realists, they need look no further than Israel.

Distinguished Israeli editor, columnist and commentator Amotz Asa-El will be visiting Australia as a guest of AIJAC in mid-March. Look out for public talks and media appearances in your city.

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