- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2001

What must it be like to be a clever fool? Yossi Beilin, Israel's Minister for Justice and for the past seven years, a leading architect of his country's participation in the Oslo Peace Process, has just written "His Brother's Keeper," which marks him for that strange, doomed historical company fated to be be remembered as pompous masters of the crazed pratfall like Neville Chamberlain or Robert McNamara?

Mr. Beilin has written a book that is sensible and even admirable and thought-provoking in parts, but extraordinarily naive and blind in its general view.

The author aims to present a master plan for the spiritual and demographic renewal of the Jewish people in the 21st century and has produced a slim but energetic little volume full of helpful suggestions to achieve those ends. He wants to create a far stronger partnership between Israel and the Diaspora Jewish communities around the world. He wants the Jewish people to recognize what he calls non-religious "secular" conversions. He wants to scrap long-moribund Jewish international institutions like the Jewish National Fund or the Jewish Agency, or radically reshape them to be far more relevant to current needs.

Many of his ideas, like the concept of "secular" conversion, or registration for non-Jewish spouses of intermarriages, are sensible and humane. If adopted, they could relieve legal and identity problems that affect hundreds of thousands of people. His concept of offering "birthright" scholarships or programs for every Jewish teenager in the world to visit Israel at the age of 17 is ambitious but also practical. He offers the attractive overarching concept that "the auto-emancipation (Jewish) community living in Israel and the emancipation community living in the United States and a few other countries would create a Jewish umbrella community offering membership to any Jew in the world who wishes to join."

Mr. Beilin even suggests that the ultra-Orthodox community, which in all numbers about 850,000 of the 13 million Jews in the world, are the 21st-century equivalent of the Karaites. They were a fundamentalist and reductionist Jewish sect more than 1,200 years ago which rejected the long, subtle and flexible rabbinical tradition of expanding and reinterpreting Jewish law to meet changing needs. The ultra-Orthodox, he argues persuasively, may likewise disappear in the future, leaving the torch of Jewish religious tradition to be carried by more open, tolerant and adaptive Jewish religious movements that they have long disdained.

This reviewer finds little to argue with and much to applaud in all the above suggestions and arguments. But Mr. Beilin hitches his humanist, tolerant vision to the central political agenda that he has long pursued in power pursuit of the Oslo Peace Process with the Palestinians. And to review this book at a time when Israelis and Palestinians are careening into what could be the most catastrophic of their many confrontations is to be forced to confront its central, glaring, blinding flaw.

For Mr. Beilin is convinced that Israel need no longer be a modern Sparta or Fortress Masada. He believes his country has decisively and moved beyond its old self-image of the armed settler forever on the alert, determined to keep at bay by the force of his own arms the continuing menace of genocidal killers ready to pounce whenever the national guard is lowered.

Yasser Arafat does not rate a single mention in the index of Mr. Beilin's book. Nor does Saddam Hussein. The author, in fact, acknowledges that Israel remains "the only country in the world that official political leaders like those in Iran, openly speak of annihilating." But the only conclusion he appears to draw from this disquieting anomaly is that it "underlines, once again, the importance of completing the initial circle of peace with Israel's neighbors."

Like the solutions to intractable problems that unworldly intellectuals have been offering since the days of Socrates and Plato, it all sounds so easy, so rational and straightforward. But what do you do when your "partners" in the "peace process" do not want to make peace, at least not on the terms that you have convinced yourself they will accept?

This is the central, underlying weakness of the book. All the enlightened reforms Mr. Beilin advocates are envisaged as being enacted by an essentially secure and stable Israel unthreatened by its neighbors or any major hostile population within. But can they still be enacted if Israel is driven back into a fortress mentality and into a new era of more alarming threats? There was no hint in Mr. Beilin's last book, "Touching Peace: From the Oslo Accord to a Final Agreement" that he ever seriously considered for a second the dark possibility that the peace process he loved could or would result in such a catastrophic outcome. There is no hint of any such concern in this book either.

Martin Sieff is Managing Editor, International Affairs of United Press International.


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