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Reviled by Some for Oslo and Geneva, Beilin Hopes to Revive the Israeli Left

April 5, 2004
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Since the violent collapse of the Oslo peace process more than three years ago, the Israeli left has been struggling.

Now, ironically, it’s none other than Yossi Beilin, one of the chief architects of the failed plan, who hopes to revive the peace camp’s flagging fortunes.

Recently chosen to head the new Yahad Party, formed out of a merger between his own Shachar movement and the veteran Meretz Party, Beilin believes he can widen the left’s political base by sharpening its peace and socio-economic messages and vociferously challenging Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government on its stance toward the Palestinians and its failure to alleviate Israel’s widespread economic hardship.

Pundits say it won’t be easy. But if the Labor Party under Shimon Peres joins the government to help push through Ariel Sharon’s plan for disengagement from the Palestinians, Beilin and Yahad will take center stage as the main left-wing opposition — which could pay dividends in the next election, scheduled for November 2007.

Beilin hopes to encroach on support for three parties: centrist Shinui, left-leaning Labor and, to a far lesser extent, the ruling center-right Likud.

He already is targeting Shinui, which he calls the “Archie Bunker” party in reference to the girth and politically incorrect statements of its leader, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid. Beilin says 40 percent of Shinui voters supported his “Geneva Accord” — a draft peace initiative signed by Israeli and Palestinian doves last October — and that the figure among Labor supporters was 60 percent.

Beilin believes Yahad will be able to attract voters from both parties on the peace issue. He also hopes to do well with young first-time voters, a key demographic that supported Shinui in droves in the last election.

He also thinks Yahad’s softer socio-economic policies will pick up some working-class support in the development towns, which usually vote for Likud.

At present, Yahad has only six Knesset members, elected in January 2003 on the Meretz ticket. Theoretically, it could gain seats quickly if doves such as Avraham Burg, Amram Mitzna and Yuli Tamir defect from Labor.

But while those politicians are much closer personally and ideologically to Beilin than to Peres, an idiosyncracy of Israel’s campaign finance law makes their defections unlikely. Instead, Beilin has called on Peres to form an “opposition directorate” that would initiate and coordinate anti-government moves in Parliament.

“I am ready to work with Labor in opposition,” Beilin declared recently. “But if Peres joins the government, he shouldn’t be surprised if we attack Labor more fiercely than we attack the Likud.”

A former Laborite himself, Beilin won the Yahad leadership by a comfortable 10 percent margin over Meretz’s Ran Cohen in nationwide primaries March 16.

He immediately launched a “100-day plan,” focusing first on clearing the $3.3 million debt the party inherited from Meretz. He also set up teams to start planning for the 2007 election and clarifying all aspects of party ideology.

After three and a half years of Palestinian intifada, Beilin argues that the right may be in power, but left-wing ideology is regaining its ascendancy in Israel.

“The 37-year-long debate over the territories is over,” Beilin told JTA. “There is a general consensus that we can’t go on keeping them.”

In other words, the central ideological battle between right and left is no longer about whether to hold onto the Palestinian territories but about how best to get rid of them. The center-right under Sharon, and many in Labor, say it’s best to do so by unilateral disengagement; the left, led by Yahad and including Labor doves, says an agreement with the Palestinians is preferable.

Beilin acknowledges that, in taking the left’s ideas, the right to some extent has usurped its political space. But, he argues, it also has given the left a new legitimacy that it had lost after Oslo’s failure.

In making the case for unilateral disengagement, Sharon argues that there is no Palestinian partner for a peace agreement, now or in the foreseeable future.

In arguing for a negotiated settlement, Beilin distinguishes between a Palestinian partner for signing an agreement and one for implementing it.

He says he is certain the Palestinians would sign something like the Geneva initiative — which gives them considerably more than what Israel was offering before the intifada began — though they might not implement even that.

Still, he argues, it would be better than a unilateral withdrawal.

“The worst-case scenario for an agreement is better than the best-case scenario for unilateral withdrawal,” he maintains: It would give Israel internationally recognized borders, solve the problems of Jerusalem and refugees and, presumably, bring funding from the international community for implementation.

In contrast, he says, unilateral withdrawal would achieve none of these things.

Moreover, he says, if the Palestinians violate a signed agreement by launching more terrorism, the international community would support Israel’s right to retaliate — though many Israelis similarly expected widespread international support when the Palestinians violated virtually all of their commitments under Oslo. Instead, Israel found itself more isolated internationally than ever, its efforts at self-defense condemned.

Still, Beilin says, a unilateral withdrawal would leave the Palestinians with an excuse for continuing the intifada, and Israel with far less international backing for self-defense.

Beilin also says he intends to draw up what he calls a “social Geneva,” an alternative economic program designed to restore the welfare state and provide incentives for unemployed Israelis to go back to work. The idea would be to present a number of social programs — such as a long school day — and to pinpoint sources of government financing for each one.

Still, Beilin’s power to attract voters as a leader is unproven. He is seen as effete, Ashkenazi and elitist; he will need close support from Cohen, the man he beat for the leadership, to garner working-class support.

In many sectors, Beilin is among Israel’s most reviled politicians, blamed more than anyone else for the debacle of Oslo. The Geneva deal, an unprecedented bit of freelance diplomacy in which Beilin circled the globe building opposition to the policies of Israel’s elected government, didn’t help his reputation among many Israelis.

Many analysts note that even if Yahad wins more seats at the expense of Labor and Shinui, it would mean only an internal redistribution of power on the center-left. For the center-left to regain power, however, it needs to take large numbers of votes from the Likud.

That, traditionally, has been something that only Labor has been able to do. In other words, many analysts say, Beilin and Yahad could make dramatic gains in the next election — and still fail to affect the outcome.

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