There's a story that Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer likes to tell, and he tells it with no little charm: how, in the 1970s, he happened to be in the Far East when terrorists attacked the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok, how he rushed over to the site and how the prime minister, Golda Meir, picked up the phone and asked who was speaking and he replied, "Fuad," and Golda was appalled because she thought that the Arabs had taken over the embassy. All those for whom the future of the Labor Party, as well as peace and Israeli democracy are important, should now be equally appalled at the prospect that Ben-Eliezer - known as "Fuad," his Iraqi name - will be elected the leader of the country's second largest political party on Tuesday, in the Labor Party primaries.
On the face of it, perhaps it would be best if he is elected, as that will be final and official seal on what actually happened in any case. Since the Labor Party joined the present government, its voice has been silenced and it has become a full partner to the policy that has brought us to the present pass. The Labor cabinet ministers are not critical and propose no alternatives; all they do is occasionally align themselves pathetically behind the protests - which are also pretty lame - of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
Liquidations, missiles, closures, incursions into the Palestinian-controlled Area A - it makes no difference, Labor has nothing to say. The prime minister is creating impassable obstacles to the renewal of the political negotiations, but Labor remains in the government. In this state of affairs, it's hardly surprising that the idea, which was attributed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (he later denied that he had made the remark) of merging Likud and Labor was not rejected out of hand by Labor.
If Ben-Eliezer triumphs over Avraham Burg, the Knesset Speaker, in the Tuesday elections for the leadership of the Labor Party, the unification idea will become extraordinarily logical. Because what, exactly, will the difference be between Labor with Ben-Eliezer at its helm and the Likud under the leadership of Ariel Sharon? Will it be the fact that Ben-Eliezer occasionally mumbles a few sentences about the need for negotiations, while in the field he is doing everything he can to scuttle the prospects for political talks?
But it's not only those who still define themselves as being part of the left-wing camp who should be concerned about a possible victory by Ben-Eliezer. Israel has of late been speaking in one voice, which is rarely challenged. The institutionalization of this situation, in the form of a new Labor leader whose way is that of the Likud, will put an end to the last hope for change and for an alternative, and will thus also constitute a danger to the spirit of democracy.
The public indifference to the elections in the Labor Party is readily understandable. In the short term, the victory of either candidate will be all but meaningless, since the public perception is that Labor is in any case irrelevant and lacks any path of its own. Neither candidate has been able to generate any enthusiasm (though it's not clear why this is the case with Burg, who is young, different and in a certain sense promising), and the general feeling is that the elections are an organizational, internal party matter - as no one expects Labor to win the next election anyway. So, people say, what's the difference whether it's Fuad or Avrum?
However, this is a shortsighted approach. It is premature to eulogize the Labor Party - it will not disappear so quickly and there is no other party capable of replacing it (unfortunately) - and therefore it is important who heads the party, as perhaps he will be able to extricate us from the present morass.
The possibility of a Ben-Eliezer victory is deeply worrying. Is there even a remote possibility that the defense minister - who rejected hardly any means, who served as the implementer of Sharon's policy, with all its horrors, who perhaps did not actually invent any new methods but almost turned the "targeted assassinations" into an assembly-line product - will become the leader of the peace camp?
For months now, he has been striking at the Palestinians, to the point where he sometimes seems to be more gung-ho than Sharon himself, without proposing any way out of the mess. These will be the works of Fuad: more liquidations, more invasions, tighter closure, more war planes, missiles and demolitions of houses. Once or twice he paid lip service to the need to alleviate the distress of the Palestinians, but in practice their plight has never been graver, and Israel's occupation policy has never been as cruel as it is now. People who are ill are dying because they are being delayed at roadblocks, the economic distress is reaching the point of hunger, but Ben-Eliezer and his two associates in the unholy trinity - the prime minister and the chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz - continue to batter the Palestinians.
The incursion into Beit Jala was "one of the most successful operations," according to the defense minister. After every terrorist attack he vows to wreak revenge - "they won't get away with it" - as his only policy. He always says he is looking after "the boys" without ever having proposed any sort of policy that will remove "the boys" from the cycle of warfare.
It is hard to imagine how the voters of the Labor Party, who only a short time ago cast their ballots for Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and even Ehud Barak, will give their support to a populist defense minister who knows nothing but force and reprisal. Do they have no conscience?
A victory by Ben-Eliezer will also send a message to the Arabs and to the world: Even the supposed alternative to the Israeli right says an enthusiastic yes to the policy of brute force and violence. It will be a very depressing message, which will state that there is only one voice in Israel, the voice of Sharon.
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