- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli justice minister and Labor Party lawmaker, is a leading figure in the country's peace movement. During the recent election campaign, he moved from Labor to Meretz, a smaller party further to the left. The Jan. 28 vote was a landslide victory for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and shrank the left to its smallest size in a decade, leaving Mr. Beilin out of the Knesset. He spoke with reporter Joshua Mitnick about where the Israeli left was headed.


Question: What have you been doing since the elections?

Answer: The main task is now to rearrange the peace camp and to think about new means, learn the lessons, analyze the results like where did we get more votes, and where did we get less votes. We are going to form the Social Democratic Party of Israel. It will include mainly the Meretz Party, but we also hope that other groups will join us.


Q: Why is there a need to form this new party? Doesn't that say something about how the left has lost its way?

A: The left did not really lose its way. The one which really lost its way was the right. The right had to give up on the idea of Greater Israel, which is a big ideological crisis of the right. It's something which has been suspended because of the attitudes of the Israelis toward the Palestinians. So there was no moment of truth.

The consensus is so much anti-Palestinian right now, and anti-Arafat, that the fact that the right had to give up on its dream is something which is too abstract for the people. The left won ideologically but lost politically. The right lost ideologically but won politically.

This is a kind of dissonance which will not go on for a very long while. I believe that in the next elections, whenever they take place, there will be a change. And this change will not be just because there will be new elections, but hopefully because of a change of attitudes of the people vis-a-vis the Palestinians and their ability to be a partner.


Q: You were one of the leaders of the movement that advocated Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon. What do you think of the calls on the left for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank?

A: Unilateral withdrawal is much less realistic than an agreement.

Even if you are speaking of the evacuation of settlements, it can be done much better and much easier if it is on the basis of a general agreement and a signed document. Imagine if we would have been in the government and [had] decided to withdraw unilaterally. In order then to evacuate the settlements, just by saying to the settlers: "We are going now to leave the territories," it would be very, very difficult.

It will always be difficult, but if there is an agreement which is agreed to by the people in a referendum or whatever, then there will be all the legitimacy in the world to do these things.

People, since they hate the Palestinians, want to make peace with themselves. But I don't think that could be the real solution because it is unrealistic. It is not our character to sell unrealistic solutions to the people.


Q: Is there a sense that the left has to change its messages to win back the political majority?

A: The left cannot become the right in order to win more votes, because by definition, that's the wrong thing to do. Of course you can insist on the same ideas, but say them in a softer way to the public without deceiving the public.

This has always been the dilemma of the left. Apparently, by definition, the solutions which were found were not attractive enough. What does it mean, we still have to analyze it. It is too early to tell.


Q: Polls say that most of the public actually supports policies of the left like unilateral separation, but they just don't trust a leader like Amram Mitzna to implement it. Do you think the left suffers from an "only Nixon can go to China" syndrome?

A: First of all, yes. Second of all, the left suffers most of all because of the two years in government. Mitzna was perceived as a loner among his own colleagues, and the general feeling was that Labor was not an alternative. So there was no attractive leader on the left side, and there was no credible alternative on the left side because of these two years.

Mitzna has helped to change it, because he was so much against the unity government.

Potentially he is an attractive leader, but for sure not in these elections. He will have to prove himself. If he can be a good opposition leader and suggest an alternative, then he will be very attractive.


Q: Why did you choose to leave the Labor Party?

A: I chose to leave the Labor Party because the whole group which opposed the unity government found itself out of the party list for the Knesset [parliament]. It was not just my case.

So I was very afraid that Labor was going to join Sharon after the elections, and I could not support such a party. I only was sure about Meretz because Meretz did not have any such agenda to join Sharon's government in the situation of a victory.

It is not that there are big differences ideologically speaking between Labor and Meretz. Labor has adopted many of the Meretz views, especially vis-a-vis peace with the Palestinians. So this was not the main issue. The main issue was the issue of joining the unity government. And I am still afraid that joining the government is an option for the Labor Party.


Q: You agree that the left suffers from the "only Nixon can go to China" syndrome. Can you explain?

A: It has existed all the time. The fact that [Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin made peace with Jordan and an agreement with the Palestinians, and [Labor Prime Minister Ehud] Barak left Lebanon, all of these things have helped us to refute it.

But still there many people [who] say, "We are pro-peace, but the only ones that can do it are the right wing," which is, of course, stupidity, not only because it is not easier for Sharon to evacuate settlements … but because he doesn't want to leave.


Q: Many leaders from the left have blamed the downfall of the left in part on Yasser Arafat. Others have blamed former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, saying that he strengthened the right by arguing that the Palestinians responded to Israel's best peace offer at Camp David with the intifada. Do you agree?

A: One should be very careful when speaking about exogenic [arising externally] reasons, because your ability to influence exogenic components is very limited. Not that it doesn't have an influence. But it is a little bit too easy to put the blame on someone who is outside of the system. Because you are working within the system.

One can say the sewage system exploded because of the rain. But if you're a good government, you have to prepare for the rain and such an occurrence. Not that Arafat made our life easier, but to put it on him is a little too much.

On the other hand to put it on Barak I think that Barak has to take some blame for the fact that, in order to justify his defeat in 2001, he said: "Well, I was not wrong, it was Arafat who was wrong. It was my big contribution that I exposed his real face."

By that, he actually proved that the right was supposedly right, and had been right all along by saying there was nothing to talk about with the Palestinians and nobody to talk to. Which was not the case. We did find Palestinian interlocutors, and we almost achieved an agreement.

And just after the [2001] elections, and even during the intifada, [Mr. Barak] invented this slogan that "I offered him everything and he blew it by opening the intifada," which was not exact. He did not give everything, and the reaction to it was not the intifada.

It was true that there was an intifada, and Arafat did not stop it. And it is true that Barak gave much or was ready to give much. But it was not as simple as that that he gave everything and the reaction was: "I don't want it. I want to kill you."

But this is the perception which has penetrated the public opinion, mainly because it was the best thing to happen to the Likud, ever. So in these elections everybody asked us, "What do you say about this slogan?" We had to invest much to explain why it was wrong.

So I would say Ehud Barak had his own part in the defeat of the left.


Q: What about your mentor, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres? To what extent was his decision to stay in the unity government responsible, and what do you think his intention was?

A: I think that the fact that the Labor Party decided to take part in the unity government was a huge mistake from all aspects morally and politically. Labor enabled Sharon to make the decision to return to the territories and reconquer Jenin, and deprive Israeli Arabs from child allowances and things like that.

Peres did it because he believed that by being there, he prevented Sharon from taking very extreme decisions. I believe that he was totally wrong. And I criticized him for that.

Yes, indirectly, he made a contribution by convincing his party to join the Likud government [and] was also there in the defeat. Because a party that was part of the government could not suggest an alternative, just because some weeks before, it [had] left the coalition.


Q: The only question I'm left with returns to your new Social Democratic Party. It seems that your direction is [to seek] Labor voters. Won't this lead to internecine battles on the left?

A: I hope not. This is an unneeded battle. We were very cautious about not fighting Labor in our [January election] campaign, and it was the same with Labor.

In the future, what we have to do is close ranks and cooperate, rather than the other way around. It doesn't contradict the effort to have a Social Democratic Party, which might be the basis for something much bigger.


Q: Doesn't what you're trying to do mean that the Labor Party is outmoded and a figment of the past?

A: In many ways it is. But we don't think that the Labor Party has died.

I can see a kind of reshuffling on the left, and I can see our platform becoming the platform for the majority of the peace camp in the coming year or two. We'll have to see.

If Labor joins the government, then of course it won't be possible to cooperate. But if Labor insists on remaining in the opposition, then I can see a very nice cooperation between the two parties.


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