Behind the Headlines: Leader of Israel’s New Peace Bloc Says Absorption is the Top Priority

Israelis should blame Yitzhak Shamir, not George Bush, if the Jewish state does not wind up with U.S. guarantees for billions of dollars in loans needed to help absorb immigrants, says Knesset member Shulamit Aloni.

“Absorbing the olim should be the priority of the government, not building new settlements in the occupied territories,” Aloni said in a recent interview.

Aloni was on an American speaking tour to raise funds for Meretz, the new coalition of dovish Israeli political parties that she heads.

Meretz, which means energy, is also an acronym for two of the three member parties: Mapam, the United Workers Party of Israel, and Ratz, the Citizens Rights Movement founded by Aloni in 1973. The third member is the Center-Shinui Movement.

The parties have put aside their disagreements on economic issues to present a united front for the June 23 elections.

All three parties agree that negotiations that will eventually lead to a Palestinian state need to be under way as soon as possible in order to preserve the democratic nature of Israel.

Speaking recently at Temple Israel of the City of New York, Aloni struck a note seldom heard in recent months from visiting Israelis.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

“There is reason to be optimistic,” she said. “For the first time since the beginning of Zionism, we have a great opportunity to implement the prophecy that the Jewish people can and will ingather in Israel.

“The prophets say that they will come from the East, West, North and South, and they are coming. For the first time we have an opportunity to build peace and flourish in the State of Israel,” she said.

Aloni noted the end of Israel’s diplomatic isolation, the willingness of Palestinians to accept U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and the fact that a dozen Arab nations sat together with Israel in the multilateral peace talks in Moscow.

“If it can be so good, why is it as bad as it is?” she asked.

“And it is that bad,” she added, charging that the Shamir government is missing the opportunities for both peace and aliyah.

But Aloni sounded confident in her talk that the Israeli electorate will retire Shamir.

Bolstering her enthusiasm are polls indicating that large numbers of the new immigrants support Meretz, despite the conventional wisdom that immigrants from the former Communist lands would not vote for parties on the left.

“People are suffering,” she said.

“The new immigrants know that Shamir is to blame for their situation. They are smart. They read, they know and they suffer because of the policies of the government. They will not vote for the government responsible for their own misery,” she said.

To support her charge that the Shamir government has failed to take immigration absorption seriously, Aloni pointed to the minister of absorption, Yitzhak Peretz.

Peretz, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, has represented no political party since 1990, when he defected from the Shas party to prevent it from forming a coalition with Labor.

Aloni, a longtime critic of Israel’s Orthodox establishment, charged that Peretz “only wants to find the kosher Jews and make the rest kosher, too.”

“Obviously absorption is not a priority with him in charge,” she said.

CHARGES ABUSE OF PALESTINIAN RIGHTS

Aloni, who has been a civil rights advocate for her tenure in politics, cited examples of Israel’s denial of human rights for the Palestinians.

“Israel put 120,000 Palestinians under curfew in Nablus, so the speaker of the Knesset could go dance with a Sefer Torah,” she said. She was referring to the incident when speaker Dov Shilansky was guest of honor at the dedication of Yeshiva Od Yosef Chai, a Jewish settler outpost in Nablus.

The curfew was imposed to guarantee the security of Shilansky and the few dozen settlers.

Asked about the propriety of imposing the curfew for the celebration, Shilansky sang into the television camera: “Out of Zion will come forth Torah.”

In discussing the current alarm in the Jewish community about the changing relationship between Israel and Washington, Aloni remained remarkably upbeat.

Despite the fact that U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s reported slur of “F– the Jews” appeared as an English headline in Israel’s Hebrew dailies, Israelis did not take the reported comment seriously, Aloni said.

“We joked about it,” she said.

“How many Jews say, ‘F— the goyim?” That word is used on a much more frequent basis now. It’s a legitimate word. I don’t think it was said because of the nature of the relationship between Israel and Washington; it was said because it is said all the time. I don’t think Baker is really an anti-Semite.”

Baker, in fact, denies ever making the remark.

Aloni also appeared to have little quarrel with the Bush administration’s reasoning for denying loan guarantees to Israel.

“We don’t need money on a humanistic basis. We need money for economic development, to prosper and to flourish. We don’t need it to build another villa for a religious zealot,” she said.

SETTLEMENTS DON’T HELP ISRAEL’S SECURITY

After her synagogue talk, members of the audience asked about matters of security.

Aloni responded that the settlements do not help Israel’s security.

‘The defense army is responsible for the security of the country, and everyone knows it,” she said emphatically.

“Those settlements are only a liability for the army,” she added.

While the more centrist Labor Party has more of a chance of defeating the Likud in the elections, Aloni remained firm that her party is the true voice of those who want peace.

“Labor does not have the same priorities. They whisper things that we shout,” she said. “They are not mature enough to say out loud what we agree upon and have been advocating for years.”

NEXT STORY