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Can Israeli PM Bennett be converted?
There is a history of Israeli right-wing politicians coming to realize that their understanding of the West Bank was wrong
I picked up the Israeli cabinet minister at the appointed time and we chatted as I drove to the parking lot at the Great Synagogue on Allenby Street. As we entered Stefan Braun, I scanned the packed garden, leading with some urgency toward the entrance.
This bar-bistro was the place to be in Tel Aviv at that time, and I was a regular. We were shown to a choice high table purely due to me, and I noted to myself that I was the far more recognizable. The minister was newly appointed, but we take our little triumphs however we can find them.
I was a foreign journalist – bureau chief for the Associated Press and chairman of the Foreign Press Association – so over a considerable volume of wine we discussed “the situation.” Buses, cafes and shopping malls were being targeted by a seemingly endless supply of suicide bombers unimpressed by the previous Israeli government’s peace offers.
The cabinet minister told me that Israel would clearly have to one day get out of the West Bank. That there was no way to control the land yet not be responsible for the population. That once the dust settled with the insurrection, a partition needed to arrive, by any means necessary.
“But you are in Likud,” I said. “That’s not the party policy and never was. You supported Likud for years as the party insisted on filling the West Bank with settlements and fought every effort to end the occupation. Didn’t you realize all this then? You were younger, but still an adult.”
The cabinet minister shrugged; I have always been amazed by politicians’ lack of shame. We began to speak of Ariel Sharon, the new prime minister.
Sharon had been the longtime bogeyman of the Left and a main patron of the settler movement. He arrived to the prime ministership following a rare political miscalculation by Benjamin Netanyahu; the former prime minister, who appointed Sharon caretaker head of the Likud after losing an election to Ehud Barak in 1999, failed to read the map and did not run in 2001.
“How can you serve Sharon?” I asked. “What’s the point, when you know he will do the very opposite of everything you espouse?”
I remember the scene. Nervous people, in denial. Indie music, pounding. A faux-bohemia element to the charm of Tel Aviv. A certain buzzing in my ear.
“Arik will surprise you,” said Tzipi Livni.
“Come on!” I protested.
Livni did not seem to be messing with me; she believed it. So I began to investigate and found that in certain circles this had quiet currency. Some believed Sharon’s prior extremism just a show; some thought the whole thing a clever negotiating tactic; others figured the coming change would be an effort to get Israel’s liberal establishment off his case on certain corruption accusations.
A true believer was Eyal Arad, the otherwise hardboiled strategist who was with Netanyahu in his early days. He had the habit of referring to Sharon as “my prime minister,” as if we were in Westminster. Arad told me that Sharon was “the last Mapainik,” meaning an adherent of the early version of the Labor Party. The term is synonymous with a willingness to compromise, round corners and sell grandmothers as need be. I made a note of it but remained skeptical.
Then, after a few years of the expected major bloody mayhem, came Sharon’s speech at the Herzliya Conference, like a thunderbolt. I was there, on December 18, 2003, when Sharon addressed the Palestinians thusly: “It is not in our interest to govern you. We would like you to govern yourselves in your own country; a democratic Palestinian state with territorial contiguity in Judea and Samaria and economic viability, which would conduct normal relations of tranquility, security and peace with Israel.”
I have never seen a more spectacular volte-face by a political leader. There are candidates – perhaps F.W. de Klerk – but in my book, Sharon takes the cake. I returned to the office in Jerusalem to write the story and found all my colleagues indifferent. “It’s just more Sharon bulls***,” said one.
I did not share this view, for a reason which will annoy some: I consider it impossible for an intelligent person who’s also a Zionist to favor the occupation indefinitely. That is because, quite apart from any moral concerns, it will make Israel a binational state. Sharon was intelligent, as anyone who’d met him will readily confirm.
Poor Ehud Olmert, another Likud veteran who was then “vice prime minister,” appeared at an FPA event a few months later to argue Sharon’s point with considerable eloquence indeed. I asked him what on earth he had been thinking, before. “Sometimes, you make mistakes,” was the best that he could do.
I was reminded of a great line from the 1973 film Live and Let Die in which a henchman dryly advises James Bond that this time he’s gone too far: “That type of mistake is tough to bounce back from.” But as Olmert was my guest, I did not bring this up.
And I was wrong on that score as well. Everyone bounced back big-time. Olmert became prime minister after Sharon’s debilitating stroke in January 2006. Livni became foreign minister and would have succeeded Olmert if not for elementary mistakes.
So obvious had it become that right-wingers are basically just pretending that many expected the same of Netanyahu. Indeed, he said some Sharon-like words; but true action never came. Books will long be written about what went on in that man’s head.
Which brings us to Bennett. Sure, his US-born hippie parents became religious and this in Israel generally means obliviousness to the demographic issue. And yes, he once headed the Yesha Council (the settlement lobby). But he is also a hi-tech multimillionaire who can count to seven million Palestinians.
There is more than one way to deal with that realization. Bennett has hinted that he wants to annex only part of the West Bank, which sounds nationalistic but also implies some comprehension of reality.
Might Bennett go the way of Sharon, Olmert, Livni and many others? What is needed for such a conversion is for him to understand that to truly unload the populated West Bank regions Israel must be generous, needs the Palestinians to enjoy continuity and viability, cannot be greedy and should not engineer shameful, unstable Bantustans.
I am not certain that Bennett has this in him – but unlike most observers, I am also not convinced that he does not. If Bennett wakes up in time, he and his strange bedfellow Yair Lapid can make history in the next few years. And if not, they will be footnotes in Israel’s self-destructive march of folly.
(Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post)