In the peace camp, they say its existence is a political necessity. Even among supporters of the right, many are of the opinion that it is an obvious necessity. Sociologists who study Israeli politics view it as a natural product of the distorted political map. Journalists report, from time to time, about renewed contacts behind the scenes.
Everyone agrees, however, that a new party that is supposed to unify the entire existing parliamentary left, is unlikely to come about.
"I agree with everything that has been said," confirms Dr. Yossi Beilin, who is expected to be one of the mainstays of such a group, "but I am also really not sure that it will come into being. For me, it is a last resort. I have always believed in big parties, and I have proved to myself that the most effective way to make changes is through a large party. Therefore I'll continue making these efforts within the framework of the Labor Party, and I have no intention of setting up an alternative to the party in which I still believe."
Asked whether a new body will come about without him, Beilin says with sangfroid (or perhaps satisfaction): "Then it won't be."
Still, it is too early to put the lid on the initiative for a parliamentary bloc expected to count among its ranks Meretz, the Labor Party doves, MK Roman Bronfman's Democratic Choice, representatives of the Arab sector and people from the periphery. It is too early even to discount the role of Beilin who, alongside his declarations in favor of the Labor Party as he would like to see it, is keeping up intensive contacts with people who are potential partners for a new venture. All of this goes on under a heavy blanket of secrecy, as if one were talking about a subversive organization, and not an attempt to rehabilitate the body politic, which right now resembles a puzzle whose pieces have not been put in the right place.
In contrast to other political organizations of the past years, the one that is currently being devised has a solid ideological infrastructure. The Center Party seemed from the outset like a photomontage of people who did not belong together. By contrast, all those who define themselves as belonging to the "peace camp" cannot fathom what holds Beilin and Labor Party leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer together, while they have difficulty finding differences of nuance between Beilin and Meretz party leader Yossi Sarid. It is hard to understand, too, what links the two large immigrant parties on the right, that of Natan Sharansky and of Avigdor Lieberman, to Bronfman's immigrant party.
It is no accident that Meretz, the Labor doves and Bronfman have found themselves in the same bed under the extra-parliamentary umbrella of "the peace coalition." The coalition has other extra-parliamentary components, notably Peace Now, but no one has the slightest doubt that its establishment will open up the way for the possible setting up of the new parliamentary body. The coalition is the arena where all the components get together to work out their common denominator, giving them a kind of "running in" period. The arrangement has already given birth to a joint visit to Egypt by Beilin and Sarid.
This is often also the stage for sharp verbal exchanges. At one of the recent meetings of the peace coalition, Sarid charged Beilin with giving Sharon's government "oblique legitimation" by staying in the Labor Party.
"True," Sarid says. "This is the reality. Just as [Foreign Minister Shimon] Peres gives Sharon legitimation by staying in the government, Beilin and the Labor doves give Peres legitimation by staying there and in this way give oblique legitimation to Sharon." This is how the running-in period sounds in a place where, as many put it, there are "more chiefs than Indians."
The slugging hard work of putting together the new initiative has been joyously taken on by Haim (Jumas) Oron of Meretz. Like a traveling salesman, he goes from door to door selling the new organization's wares. He visits the famous and the anonymous, in the center or on the peripheries, intellectuals and simple folk; he examines various possibilities and listens to reactions to what is supposed to turn into the new "social-democratic" body.
A position paper that he presents to potential partners bears the heading "A new order of priorities for Israeli society." It puts together political positions and a socio-economic weltanschauung. The paper states, inter alia: "We see in the combination between continued conquest, nationalistic policy and widening social and economic gaps, fertile ground for the blossoming of extreme right-wing leadership and danger to Israel's democracy."
"Beyond the dream and the necessity to examine things, everything is just at the talking stage," Oron says. "But it is already clear that this type of move has potential in additional sectors, other than Meretz and Labor, at a time when there are no longer two vote slips [for the premiership and for a party]. We can also see the necessity from the polls: a party with Beilin and Sarid would get a third more than if they each go their separate ways."
In a recent poll, the non-existent party got 18 mandates. Some of this is simple arithmetic: the 10 Meretz mandates, 1.5-2 mandates that the surveys give Bronfman's party, and the remainder, the current dowry from the Labor doves. The big question is what the dovish voters of Labor, who have reservations about the "Sheinkin Street" image of Meretz, would do in elections.
The electoral outlook for the future is more complicated: a large body that unites authentic forces can create synergy that would increase its power beyond a mere mathematical addition of mandates; on the other hand, lurking in the shadows is the danger that it will be considered a mere enlargement of what already exists instead of creating new momentum. By declaring openly that he was joining the Left, Bronfman, for example - who is already walking a tightrope in the immigrant camp - could lose power.
Apparently Bronfman has already made some sort of decision by virtue of his joining the peace coalition. "I don't call it the left but rather a true liberal body that will prevent Israel from deteriorating into a state of `regular fascism,'" he says. "Regular fascism," Bronfman explains, is a term coined by the Russian Jewish director Mikhail Romm to describe the rise of fascism in Germany in the Thirties. "I say that the false consensus that exists today in Israel and the daily atrocities in the territories will bring this type of fascism upon us," Bronfman says heatedly. "I feel everything must be done to stop the deterioration and if I have to sacrifice my political career for this end, then I shall. It is preferable that Beilin should be there, but it is not essential. Every additional minute that Beilin and [Knesset Speaker Avraham] Burg do not cause their party to leave the coalition, makes them less relevant. There are sufficient human energies that are looking for a niche now. I genuinely believe that my two mandates, those who know my work, will go with me."
Waiting on Labor
The situation at present seems to be that Meretz is ready, Bronfman is ready, and everyone is awaiting the decision of the Labor doves who continuously put off their departure from the party. First they spoke of breaking away if the party joined the unity government. The unity government is alive and kicking, and they are still there.
Then they said they were waiting for the elections to the party leadership. Ben-Eliezer was elected, and they are still there. Now they say they will leave if Ben-Eliezer is party candidate for the premiership. "In my opinion, they will not break away even though Fuad [Ben-Eliezer] will be the candidate," Sarid says emphatically.
Sarid declares that even if the Labor doves do not join in the move, the new social-democratic framework will be established.
Will the result of all these efforts be merely an expanded Meretz?
"No way," says Sarid. "Everyone has to have founding shares without the domination of anyone, even if he brings 10 mandates."
One of the more interesting phenomena is that of the Arab sector where, despite the residual damage of a face-off with police last October, the desire for political revenge (that lost the Arab vote for Ehud Barak) is turning into realpolitik that is pushing them toward a new political formation. "This is a party that could win a lot of votes among people who want to remain proud Arabs but are concerned about the state of Israel where they live," says one of the Arab personalities involved in the body. "We no longer have the option of one voting slip for the prime minister and another for an Arab party and we are concerned about the delegitimation of the Arab parties' MKs by the Zionist consensus in the Knesset. How can the Arabs punish Sharon today if not by voting for another framework?... An organization on the left could provide the answer for us. But for this, Beilin is necessary."
But talking is one thing, and doing is another.
Even Sarid, who appears to be the most committed to the idea, says that it is too soon to make a move when no one knows when elections will be held or what the agenda will be.
Beilin says he wants to see what will happen in the Labor primaries in October and whether he will decide to retire from politics for a while or to set up a new framework.
Bronfman would also like to wait until the last moment.
Only the Arab sector says, sooner rather than later.
But that is precisely where more time is needed.
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