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The Beilin Syndrome
MEPHISTO, the demon who bought the soul of Faust in Goethe’s monumental drama, describes himself as "a part of that force which always wants the bad and always creates the good."
Yossi Beilin, who resigned this week as chairman of the Meretz party, is Mephisto’s opposite: he always wants the good and all too often creates the bad.
* * *
THE "SETTLEMENT BLOCS" provide a glaring example. It was Beilin who invented this term a dozen years ago. It was included in the unofficial understanding that became known as the "Beilin-Abu-Mazen agreement".
The intention was good. Beilin believed that if most settlers were concentrated in several limited areas near the Green Line, the settlers as a whole would agree to a withdrawal from the rest of the West Bank.
The actual result was disastrous. The government and the settlers jumped at the opportunity. The permit of the "Zionist peace movement" was displayed like a Kosher certificate on the wall of a butcher shop selling pork chops. The settlement blocs were enlarged at a frantic pace and became veritable towns, like Ma’aleh Adumim, the Etzion Bloc and Modi’in Illit.
For dozens of years, the United States had insisted that all the settlements violate international law. But the approval granted to the "settlement blocs" enabled President George W. Bush to change this stance and approve Israeli "population centers" in the occupied territories. Haim Ramon, who in the past had been Beilin’s partner in the group of "eight doves" within the Labor Party, went even further: he initiated the "Separation Wall", which in practice annexes the "settlement blocs" to Israel.
But Beilin’s brilliant idea did not in the least diminish the opposition of the settlers to a withdrawal from the rest of the West Bank. On the contrary: they continue to prevent by force the dismantling of the settlement outposts, even a single tiny one. Nothing good came out of this idea. The result was totally bad.
* * *
ONE CAN GO ON enumerating Beilin’s brilliant ideas. As in the song of the former master comedian (and current orthodox rabbi) Uri Zohar: "The Jewish head is inventing patents for us." In Israel’s political and diplomatic arena, there is no head more fertile than Beilin’s.
I don’t know what exact role Beilin played in the invention of the patents displayed at the 2000 Camp David conference. For example: the idea that Israel should demand sovereignty over the Temple Mount, but only below the surface. It did not appease the Israeli Right, but it terrified the Palestinians, who feared that Israel was intending to undermine the Islamic holy shrines until they collapsed, thus making it possible to replace them with the Third Jewish Temple. The next step was Ariel Sharon’s "visit" to this sensitive site, which triggered the outbreak of the second intifada.
After the 2006 elections, Beilin had another brilliant idea: to invite Avigdor Liberman to a well publicized friendly breakfast. The intention was no doubt good (even if I can’t fathom what it was) but the result was calamitous: it gave Liberman a "leftist" Kosher certificate which enabled Ehud Olmert to include him in his government.
After that, Meretz announced that it would not, under any circumstances, sit in a government that included Liberman. But one cannot return Rosemary’s baby to the womb of its mother. Liberman stays in the government, Meretz remains outside. Now Olmert explains to the Americans that he cannot dismantle even one settlement outpost, nor negotiate about the "core issues" of the conflict, because Liberman would then bring the government coalition crashing down.
Indeed, Beilin is very generous in dispensing Kosher certificates to extreme rightists. On the eve of one of the annual mass meetings of the "Zionist Left" in commemoration of Yitzhak Rabin, he announced that he was prepared to appear together with the leader of the most extreme Right, General Effi Eytam. Fortunately for him, nothing came of this.
There must be some connection between these ideas and his stand at critical junctures. For example: his support for Ariel Sharon’s Separation Plan, without making it conditional on reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. The result: the Gaza Strip turned into the "biggest prison on earth".
Worse: the determined support of Beilin for the Second Lebanon War during its first and most critical stage. In the course of the war, he proposed attacking Syria, too. Only in the fourth week, after a dozen stormy anti-war demonstrations, did Beilin start to voice any criticism and have Meretz organize a demonstration of its own.
* * *
IN THE other pan of the scales lie two of Beilin’s major positive contributions: to the Oslo Declaration of Principles and the Geneva initiative.
His input to Oslo was certainly significant. But he did not prevent two black holes in the agreement: the omission of the crucial words "Palestinian state" and the absence of an unequivocal ban on the continuation of settlement activity.
These two faults have buried the agreement. The negotiations for a permanent peace agreement, which were to be concluded in 1999, did not even start. The settlements were being enlarged rapidly while everybody was talking about peace.
The Geneva Initiative, on the other side, was entirely a creation of Beilin. It could have crowned his career. Its inauguration became an international event. The Great of the Earth gave it their blessing. It seemed that it would give a decisive push to the peace process.
This did not happen. Ariel Sharon brushed it from the table with the back of his hand: he announced the Separation Plan and diverted national and international attention away from Geneva.
That need not have been the end of the initiative. There could have been a sustained campaign in Israel and throughout the world, preaching it from every pulpit, putting it on the agenda again and again. But then Beilin made the greatest mistake of his life: he ran for the chairmanship of Meretz – and won.
* * *
THE ERROR was clear from the first moment: there is a basic contradiction between being a party chairman and being the Prophet of Geneva, a person totally identified with the initiative and its main advocate at home and abroad.
When the Initiator of Geneva became the leader of Meretz, he crippled the initiative by turning it into the platform of one small party. And, on the other hand, he turned Meretz into a one-issue party entirely devoted to the promotion of the initiative. Both the initiative and the party lost.
A smart person like Beilin should have understood that. But I suspect that he has two souls struggling for mastery: the soul of an ideas-man and the soul of a party operative. He is not satisfied with being only one.
The mistake carried a high price. This week, Beilin was compelled to announce his resignation from the Meretz chairmanship.
There is something mysterious in the character of this party: it devours its leaders, one after another. First its founding mother, Shulamit Aloni, was practically kicked out. The man who did this, Yossi Sarid, was compelled to resign in his turn, when the party shrank from 12 to 6 Knesset seats, turning from a medium into a small party. After the last elections, under Beilin, it was down to 5.
Under his leadership, the Meretz faction was a strange bird: neither a real opposition party nor a member of the coalition. Beilin grew up in the establishment, and even when he is formally in opposition he thinks and acts like a member of the establishment. Not only did Meretz, under his leadership, support Sharon’s Separation Plan and Olmert’s Lebanon war, but even since then Beilin has been openly flirting with the Prime Minister. Just when the great majority in the country has reached the conclusion that Olmert is unfit for his job, Beilin gives him a Kosher certificate.
He says that he believes that Olmert sincerely wants peace. He quotes with approval the sayings of the New Olmert: "My father was wrong and Ben-Gurion was right" (Olmert’s father was an Irgun stalwart), and also "Israel is lost" if it does not implement the Two-State solution. Nice-sounding sentences – only Olmert moves in the very opposite direction, avoiding serious peace negotiations and waging war in Gaza. Now the Meretz people seem to have had enough.
When a party kicks its leader out, it is always a sad event. But this is not the first time it has happened to Beilin, and that invites some serious questions.
He grew up from early youth in the Labor Party and was one of the promising foster-children of Shimon Peres. As Deputy Foreign Minister he had the opportunity to give full scope to his untiring creativity. But then Ehud Barak came to power, with his uncanny ability to put the wrong person in the wrong position. Beilin was appointed Minister of Justice, a job that paralyzed his special talents.
On the eve of the next elections, the Labor Party banished Beilin to a hopeless place on its election list. In fury and frustration, he left the party, slammed the door behind him and joined Meretz. Now he has been practically pushed out of there.
Unlike Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid, Beilin has no intention of "going home". His fertile brain is already hatching new plans. In recent interviews he prophesies a fundamental change in the political landscape and the creation of a new political force including members from Kadima, Labor and Meretz. Presumably he imagines that this party would be headed by Olmert, and that Beilin would play a central role. It would be fighting against Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.
An interesting idea, but its chances are close to nil.
* * *
BEILIN’S PROBLEMS go beyond his personal story. They symbolize the tragedy of the camp which calls itself the "Zionist Left". Probably the appellation itself already contains the problem.
This camp was born a hundred years ago, and it seems that it never once engaged in real self-criticism. In his last interview, Beilin uses all the terminology of the Zionist establishment. Like everybody else he calls the Palestinian fighters in the Gaza strip "terrorists". In his scale of values, "it is important that a boy attains the rank of an outstanding soldier". And, of course, "If Israel ceases to be a Jewish state, I will have no more interest in it."
With such views, the Zionist peace camp cannot become a political fighting force, engage in a real opposition struggle, bring about change in the country. And that is more than just one of Yossi Beilin’s personal problems.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is o a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.