On Generals and Admirals

“NOTHING SUCCEEDS like success,” says a typical American adage. The Israeli version, also typical, is: “Nothing succeeds like failure.”

It seems that no one has any chance of winning an election here until they have proven, beyond any reasonable doubt, that they are a total failure. So it is quite possible that in the next general elections there will be only two candidates for the job of Prime Minister: Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.

To recall: Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister in 1996. After serving barely half his term of office, he was toppled. To replace him, a large majority elected Ehud Barak. The whole country breathed an almost audible sigh of relief, and masses of people saluted him in Tel-Aviv’s Rabin Square as the man who had delivered Israel from a nightmare. Less than two years later, Barak was swept aside by an even larger majority.

Everybody expects the Kadima party to disappear at the next elections as suddenly as it appeared a year and a half ago–like the gourd in the Book of Jonah (4, 10) “which came up in a night and perished in a night.” But if, by a miracle, Ehud Olmert is also a candidate for Prime Minister, we shall have the choice between three well documented failures.

In other democracies, such people disappear after elections, in England to raise roses or in the US to make speeches for huge honoraria. Here they go from strength to strength.

* * *

SOME CLEVER public relations hacks have found a substitute for the word “failure”. From now on, don’t say “failure”‘ say “experience”.

Netanyahu, Barak and Olmert never tire of repeating this sentence: “I have learned from experience.”

What have they learned? That’s a secret. But how pitiful are their rivals, who have no experience! What do they have that they can learn from? What experience do they have? These three have already been prime ministers. They have experienced crises. True, they have made a mess of every one of them. So what? That’s all for the best. Next time they will not fail again.

They have a model to imitate. Yitzhak Rabin was elected Prime Minister in 1974. He served for three years, until his government fell (because a squadron of fighter planes given us by the US arrived in Israel at the beginning of Holy Shabbat). His term in office was gray. It was marred by the corruption affairs of his party colleagues. Rabin did not fail any important test, but neither did he shine.

When he arrived at the Prime Minister’s office for the second time, 14 years later, he brought about one of the most profound changes in the history of the state. He recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization and was responsible for the Oslo accords. Many believe, today, that he was one of the greatest Prime Ministers in the annals of Israel.

But he was an exception. The rule was defined by Field Marshal Charles Francois Dumouriez when, after the Restoration, he said about the courtiers of the Bourbon kings: “They have forgotten nothing and learned nothing.”

* * *

LAST WEEK, primary elections took place in the Labor Party, which calls itself Social-Democratic and pretends, whenever it remembers, to be the “Leader of the Peace Camp”.

Five candidates competed for the leadership of the party, including: 1 former Chief of Staff, 2 generals, 1 admiral, 2 former chiefs of the Secret Services (1 of the Mossad, 1 of the Shin Bet), 1 Minister of Defense. (Some have worn more than one hat.)

Barak’s election slogan was: “Only I can conduct the next war!” In the first round, he won a significant victory over his principal rival, Ami Ayalon (36.6% to 30.6%). Next week, the two will face each other in the second round.

What is the difference between them? Both were born in kibbutzim and left them long ago. They have similar views about national and social issues. Is the main difference between them that one is a general and the other an admiral (a title stemming from the Arabic Amir al-Bakhar, Prince of the Sea)?

* * *

FORTUNATELY, I do not have to vote in these primaries. I am not, and have never been, a member of the Labor Party in any of its many incarnations.

But that does not get me off the hook. I must ask myself: if I were a member of this poor party, which of the two would I choose?

I would not be able to vote for Ehud Barak. Even if I wanted to, my hand would not obey.

I once called him a “peace criminal”, as distinct from a “war criminal”. A peace criminal is a person who commits a crime against peace. I believe that Barak is responsible for the greatest crime against Israeli-Palestinian peace ever committed, more grievous even than the sins of David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Shamir or Ariel Sharon.

In 2000, Barak persuaded President Bill Clinton to convene a conference at Camp David, and Clinton pressured Yasser Arafat to attend. The whole initiative was a mixture of arrogance and ignorance as far as the Arab world was concerned–two of Barak’s most obvious traits. Nothing was prepared in advance, no committee sat to identify the areas of agreement and disagreement, nobody even bothered to set an agenda.

Yossi Sarid, then a minister in Barak’s government, confirmed this week what I asserted then: Barak had brought with him an offer that he believed the Palestinians would not be able to resist. But in fact it was far from the minimum any Palestinian leader could possibly accept. To cover his shame, Barak invented the pretext that his real aim all along had been to “unmask” Arafat.

Barak’s real crime was not his conduct during the conference, but what he did afterwards. When he came home, he propagated a mantra consisting of five sentences: “I made unprecedentedly generous offers / I turned every stone to achieve peace / The Palestinians refused everything / There is nobody to talk with / We have no partner for peace.”

This mantra, repeated by the media thousands of times, is easy to absorb and frees one from any obligation to make concessions or efforts. It destroyed, in the hearts of the people, any belief in peace and caused terrible damage to the Israeli peace camp. The peace camp was turned into an arid desert, with only a few small oases left. This has not changed to this very day.

To this central crime, minor ones were added: the willful abandonment of the peace negotiation with Syria a moment before final agreement could be achieved; the lack of dialogue with Hizbullah and Syria on the eve of the withdrawal from South Lebanon; the mass killings of Arab citizens by the police in October 2000; the permission granted to Ariel Sharon to visit the Temple Mount–the provocation that ignited the 2nd intifada.

* * *

I HAVE a story of my own, which I am telling here for the first time. It throws some light, I believe, on the nature of Barak and his people.

After the failure of Camp David and the outbreak of the new intifada, a general election again took place–Barak against Sharon. All the polls foresaw a resounding defeat for Barak.

On election day, at about 4 p.m., my phone rang. The person at the other end identified himself as Tal Silberstein, Barak’s chief advisor, and said that he was calling me on behalf of his boss. He told me that in the last few hours a dramatic change in favor of Barak had taken place, and begged me to use my influence to induce the leaders of the Arab community to call upon the Arab citizens to go to the ballot boxes and vote for Barak. “That is all we need to win,” he said. (It was generally assumed that most of the Arab citizens would abstain from voting, in protest at Barak’s role in the October killings.)

I called Knesset Member Azmi Bishara and told him about the conversation. “One, it’s too late, and two, I don’t believe him,” he answered. And he was right: the “change” never happened, at that hour Barak’s overwhelming defeat was already assured. Barak’s man just told me a brazen lie, in order to make his defeat a little less complete.

* * *

THE QUESTION is, would I now vote for Ayalon?

The Prince of the Sea has some good points. Together with Sari Nusseibeh, in 2002 he published a declaration of principles for Israeli-Palestinian peace. It was not as far-reaching as the later Geneva Initiative (not to mention the Gush Shalom Draft Peace Agreement which preceded it) but was certainly a step in the right direction. However, there was no follow-up. It was as if Ayalon had forgotten all about it. He did not take part in any of the protest actions against the continued occupation, the building of the Wall and the enlargement of the settlements.

On the contrary, more than once he declared that his heart was with the settlers, that he understands and respects them, that they are today’s real pioneers, etc. Sure, that could be de Gaulle-like posturing, but who knows?

Truth is, nobody really knows about his views and his plans. We know only that he has spent most of his life in the military complex. There his character and world-view were formed. And it is also quite impossible to know whether he succeeded or failed there.

Ayalon has already shown that his decisions are very, very unpredictable. He has already contradicted himself several times. His opponents accuse him of being a zigzagger. One thing only is sure about him: that nothing is sure.

* * *

A EUROPEAN saying goes: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Some of the wavering voters will act on this.

As a friend told me: “Barak is predictable. Ayalon is unpredictable. So perhaps Barak is better.”

This argument works both ways. It’s certain that nothing good will come out of Barak. Perhaps nothing good will come out of Ayalon either, but when a person is unpredictable, you don’t know. He can surprise for the better. And almost any surprise would be better than the present situation.

Fortunately, I don’t have to decide.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s hot new book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.



URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.