Barak: Focus on the possible

NEW YORK, Nov. 22 (JTA) — The British airport worker who slammed his truck into a plane making a refueling stop could not have realized that he was punctuating a point for the aircraft’s important passenger.

Ehud Barak finally made it to the United States later than he had planned, with what he called a “small human error” preventing him from personally addressing the thousands of American Jewish communal leaders waiting to greet him in Atlanta.

A day later, speaking in New York to a wildly supportive crowd at an Israel Policy Forum dinner, the commando-turned-politician found a way to use this concept of unpredictable human failings to slip, undercover, into his political message: If the peace process fails, it will be due to human error, and its success would not come through heavenly intervention.

“I cannot look to the heavens for miracles, and I do not believe in waiting for divine solutions,” Barak told the IPF forum, a theme he repeated the next day to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “This must be resolved, here and now, by human beings.”

Had it come from the leader of any other nation, this theme of humans seizing the moment would seem almost trite. But Israel was founded, in part, on biblical claims, and its history is peppered with the language of miracles.

Support for Israel among Jews around the world — and more recently among Christian Zionists — has depended a great deal upon the idea of Israelis as modern-day heirs to biblical stories.

Barak is not a post-Zionist out to “debunk the myths” of Israel’s miraculous survival, but he is attempting to take the image of Israel among North American Jews out of the realm of the mythic and place it firmly in modern-day political reality.

Barak told the Conference of Presidents that he has “no illusions” regarding the “tough neighborhood” in which Israel lives.

But, he said, unlike Israel’s supporters and critics in Europe and America, he’s not flying in a “balloon” and gazing below at Israel the symbol, the idea or the fulfillment of a biblical promise.

Rather, he said, “we have our feet on the ground.”

This pragmatism came out in many of the answers Barak gave to those on both the right and the left at the Conference of Presidents forum and in his concrete proposals on what is possible for human beings to accomplish now, as opposed to higher-minded ideals toward which Israelis and Palestinians can later aspire.

His message to the left: Coexistence with Palestinians, while a wonderful ideal, is not possible in the real world as it exists today. That’s why he is advocating “good fences for good neighbors” and complete separation between Israel and any future Palestinian state.

His message to the right: While he’s bothered by anti-Israeli rhetoric — from Yasser Arafat’s wife on down — he will not allow it to paralyze the peace process.

He said that, unlike his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, he will not first insist that his neighbors become “Jeffersonian democracies” before Israel can make peace with them.

It was a theme he echoed in a taped video presentation to Jewish delegates in Atlanta.

“Today to be pro-Israel is to be pro-peace,” he said via satellite after the mishap in England made him miss his planned appearance at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Committees.

Barak said he realizes that a final-status agreement on a piece of paper will not make peace in the hearts of individuals. That could take generations.

“We are fully aware that the basic attitude of the people around us will not be changed overnight.”

First, he said, there must be peace, politically and legally, before Palestinians and Israelis can start on the journey toward true peace in their attitudes and rhetoric.

So, what are the first steps along this journey? Barak mentioned a few to the Israel Policy Forum and the Conference of Presidents:

• A “joint code of conduct” should be drawn up so that although negotiators do not necessarily need to say nice things about one another, they will at least agree to keep the rhetoric civil;

• In addition to a physical fence separating Israelis and Palestinians, there will be an economic one as well. “Separate economies for separate peoples,” complete with a separate Palestinian currency. A complete divorce would, he said, end any talk of the Palestinians attempting a “phased way to destroy Israel.”

Even with separation, however, Barak said he envisions “free-trade agreements with the Palestinians and broad economic cooperation, the sharing of know-how and raw materials, and some Palestinians working in Israel.”

Barak indicated that peace not only involves Israel, the Palestinians and other Arab neighbors. It also must come among Jews themselves — a theme that found a receptive audience in the United States.

With Israel no longer worried about its continuing existence, it can be “liberated to pursue a wide-ranging agenda of human and economic rights, environmental protection and the difficult questions of religion and state.”

The prime minister pledged to continue a move toward a free market economy and said he will encourage private high-tech entrepreneurship. But he also said that while in the United States the label of “tax and spend” can mean political death, in Israel the government is expected to shoulder more burdens on behalf of the “weaker members of society.”

To illustrate his commitment to a free market, Barak ended his U.S. visit Monday by opening the NASDAQ exchange, where the majority of Israeli stocks listed on Wall Street are traded. At a luncheon later in the day for executives of companies traded on the exchange, Barak spoke of the investment opportunities Israeli firms offer.

Barak also sees a strong government role in making sure that immigrants from the former Soviet Union are treated fairly when it comes to deciding their religious status. Barak said he is a “great believer in aliyah” and wishes Israel could attract another million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

In response to concerns about whether the new immigrants are Jewish, he only half-jokingly attempted to answer the age-old question of “Who is a Jew?”

“Whoever is meshuganah enough to want to become a Jew” should be allowed to become one.

Barak spoke in mostly level tones and had detailed answers to most questions put to him. When speaking of topics dear to him, he turned animated and occasionally pounded the lectern. But he frequently returned to the theme of Israel not as a myth, not a miracle, but a community of human beings who, combined with the power and influence of American Jewry, can make the Middle East a safer place.

“At the end of the day,” Barak said, “we will still be living side by side with the Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

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