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As Intifada Continues to Rage, Israeli Left and Right Both Revive

February 26, 2002
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They used to say that the idea of Greater Israel was null and void. They also used to say that it would take the Israeli left years to recover from the shock of the Intifada.

Now both political extremes are making a comeback, claiming to offer solutions where the government has failed.

The extreme right has given renewed legitimacy to the idea of “transfer,” the deportation of the Arab population to neighboring countries. Radical elements in the left are flirting with the idea of civil disobedience — until now, a rarity in Israeli society.

In the middle, the national unity government has been unable to offer any dramatic breakthrough in the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict, virtually paralyzed by its own leftist and rightist extremes.

Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi, who was assassinated last October by Palestinian terrorists in Jerusalem, was the champion of the transfer idea, making it the main platform of his Moledet Party.

As long as Ze’evi was alive, his political power was marginal. In May 1999 — four months before the outbreak of the intifada — Moledet won only two seats in the Knesset.

Since Ze’evi’s murder, however, the idea seems to have gathered momentum. A recent public opinion poll conducted by Ma’ariv showed that 35 percent of Israeli Jews support transfer of some kind.

That is an unprecedented rate of support for an idea that just months ago was considered taboo. It is seen as much as a reflection of Israeli despair at the violence of the Palestinian intifada and the destruction of the Oslo peace process as much as it is an expression of animosity toward Arabs.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, despair led some 200 reserve army officers to announce that they would no longer serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip “to protect the settlers.”

The publication of their open letter, and the subsequent controversy, was followed by a rally of more than 10,000 people in Tel Aviv calling for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip — and dismantling the settlements there.

Compared with the massive left-wing demonstrations before the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt and after the 1993 Oslo accord, the turnout was relatively small. Still, it was the first time the left had taken to the streets since the shock of the peace process’ collapse and the outbreak of the intifada.

A week later, the settlers responded with a massive demonstration in Jerusalem — the first such demonstration after months in which they allowed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to conduct the standoff with the Palestinians as he saw fit.

The right is unified in its solidarity with the settlements — at the very least, in the conviction that Israel should not withdraw from them under fire — and the need to crush the intifada.

However, the right still is divided on the question of transfer. Some speak of transfer by consent; others of an exchange of Jewish settlers moving from the West Bank and Gaza Strip into Israel and of Arabs moving from Israel to the territories. Still others support using the possibility of transfer mainly as a rhetorical threat.

Similarly, the left is divided over the question of whether soldiers can take the law into their own hands by refusing to serve in the territories.

During the demonstration in Tel Aviv two weeks ago, Knesset member Roman Bronfman of the Democratic Choice Party won enthusiastic applause as he expressed his total support for the disobedient officers.

Calling them “the conscience of the country,” he praised them for having returned pride to the leftist camp. He ended his speech by telling them, “I salute you.”

Meretz Party leader Yossi Sarid, head of the opposition, was furious. Despite his unequivocal opposition to the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Sarid objects to private initiatives of civil disobedience. When Bronfman came off-stage, Sarid reprimanded him for having violated the consensus of the organizers of the demonstration.

But Sarid could not ignore the fact that the “refuseniks,” with their controversial letter, gave the left new life.

“The issue certainly keeps us busy,” said Moriah Shlomot, secretary general of Peace Now. “Some of the refuseniks come from the Peace Now school of thought.”

On Monday, a military judge sentenced two officers who refused to serve in the territories to 25 days in jail. They were the first to suffer for their act of civil disobedience.

Yet even Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer understood that the matter can’t be dealt with through punitive measures alone. He intended to meet with the refuseniks, Ben-Eliezer said, “to cope with the difficult questions they were raising.”

Other examples of the leftist revival is Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg’s insistence on addressing the Palestinian legislative council in Ramallah, despite the government’s objections, and growing calls for Israel to withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

And, in a long interview in Ma’ariv, Rami Heuberger, one of Israeli’s most popular actors, delivered a shock to the Israeli conscience.

“I am not saying we are Nazis. However, once you lose your moral codes, the door is wide open,” Heuberger said. “To be a people which annihilates another people, this frightens me.”

Heuberger and others are frightened because so much seems to have changed since the days when former right-wing Knesset Member Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, son of late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, described Ze’evi’s transfer idea as “moral trash.”

In September, Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested the exchange of settlers for Israeli Arabs. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, an influential religious leader among the settlers, recently wrote in a settlers publication: “Since many of the Arabs” in Israel “do not accept our sovereignty, it is a mitzvah to deport them.”

Uri Elitzur, editor of the settler periodical Nekudah, was candid enough to acknowledge that deporting an entire population would not work.

“The world will not allow it, the Arabs will not agree and Israeli society will be torn to pieces,” Elitzur said. He conceded that transfer was impossible “both morally and politically,” but said it was legitimate to talk about transfer as a matter of tactics.

By countering maximalist Palestinian demands with moderate proposals intended to reach real compromise, Israel inevitably suffers when the world demands a solution somewhere in between, Elitzur said.

“If it’s legitimate to speak about” a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, “which means the annihilation of the Jewish state, than it should be legitimate to speak about transfer, which means the destruction of the Palestinian people,” Elitzur said.

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