'I Dare You to Question the Left's Loyalty to Israel'

Haim Oron, former leader of the left-wing Meretz party, fears that continued control of the territories will spell the end of Zionism, but isn't yet ready to give up hope.

Gidi Weitz
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Haim Oron.Credit: Yanai Yechiel
Gidi Weitz

On a recent Saturday, former leader of the left-wing Meretz party Haim Oron and his wife, Nili, spent hours at Sheba Medical Center, in Ramat Gan. They sat by the bedside of their grandson, Adi Zimri, from an elite unit of the Engineering Corps, who was seriously wounded in the fighting in the Gaza Strip. Hit in the leg by a rocket-propelled grenade while searching for Hamas tunnels, he saved his own life by applying an arterial tourniquet to staunch the blood.

Flying a helicopter that night to provide aerial cover to Zimri and his buddies was Oron’s son Oded, a pilot in the reserves. He didn’t know that his nephew was below. Oded’s life companion is also a pilot, and she too took part in the war. Oron’s granddaughter Omer Zimri – Adi’s sister – was serving as a reservist operations officer on the Hatzerim airbase. It was she who dispatched the rescue forces, also not knowing her brother was one of the wounded.

The next day, Oron, 74, traveled from his home of the last 52 years, on Kibbutz Lahav, north of Be’er Sheva, to defense establishment headquarters in Tel Aviv to attend a ceremony in honor of his firstborn son, Uri, a brigadier general in the air force and a combat pilot who also saw action in the war.

The many who have been riding the jingoistic bandwagon lately will not easily be able to categorize Oron as someone who has plunged a knife into the nation’s back. Yet, he is convinced, for example, that it was wrong to suspend MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad) from parliamentary debates or to threaten Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy in a social-networks blitz – even though he didn’t agree with one word in Levy’s column condemning the air force pilots.

“Right-wing aggressiveness has ratcheted up enormously,” says Oron, speaking earlier this month. “Some people here think they are in direct communion with God, and their ability to accept a different view is nonexistent. A worldview is taking control here that we called fascist when it manifested itself in other countries.”

Though he supported Operation Protective Edge initially, Oron terms the ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip cruel collective punishment. “The assumption that you can hold 1.8 million people in a vast prison indefinitely, and that this policy will not generate an explosion is completely unrealistic,” he says.

Surrounded as you are by a fighting family, do you feel you are exempt from a loyalty oath?

“I reject and am outraged by the idea that left-wingers need to declare loyalty [to the state]. I absolutely refuse to allow anyone to put me in that position. I refuse to be a party to the horrific manipulation ... [and] to hold up a ‘Let the IDF win’ banner. It’s insulting that I need some kind of character reference in the form of a fighting family. This development is one of the gravest threats to the Israeli society. Comparisons to events that occurred in other countries across history leap to mind.”

Such as what?

“Societies that lost their brakes and skidded into very dark places. I reject categorically the demand from me and people like Zahava Gal-On, Nitzan Horowitz, Yossi Sarid, Yair Tsaban or Ran Cohen [present or former senior Meretz figures] to prove loyalty and commitment.”

What about the Arab MKs?

“They are treated as absolute enemies, whereas we are seen as disloyal at best and at worst as traitors. The Arab MKs are torn between being part of this country and the fact that this country is at war with their people. I am aware of that internal division and understand it.”

‘An oppressive feeling’

We are sitting in the garden of Oron’s handsome kibbutz home, adorned with ceramic works made by his wife. He gets ongoing reports about his grandson, whom he visits several times a week; on this particular day, Adi had undergone surgery. “His condition has improved,” Oron notes. “There’s a long way to go, but he’ll be all right.”

Anxiety about the war gripped him from the first day: “It’s become harder with time,” he says. “The circle of family participants is widening, and there’s an oppressive feeling.”

The sounds of explosions from the Gaza Strip punctuate our conversation. The separation barrier to the east of the southern Hebron hills is clearly visible from the garden. To the right is the West Bank settlement of Eshkolot.

The first time Oron’s eyes smarted from teargas was shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War, when he and others demonstrated against the nascent settlement enterprise when it set up camp in the Park Hotel in Hebron. Land of Israel activists, including Rabbi Moshe Levinger and attorney Elyakim Haetzni were celebrating Passover there, and with the backing of ministers in the Labor Alignment government, they were setting the settlement project in motion.

You were a follower of Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz at the time, one of the first Israelis who called for the return of the occupied territories.

“I agreed with everything Leibowitz said until he supported refusal to do military service. On one occasion, he turned to me – I was the head of the Kibbutz Artzi movement then – and said: ‘If people like you instructed 1,000 officers from your kibbutz movement not to serve, that would be the end of the occupation.’ I told him I disagreed.”

Do you object in principle to refusal to serve?

“Refusal to serve as a political instrument is a line that must not be crossed. We should, however, meet halfway an individual who says he is a pacifist and abhors weapons.”

Is there a contradiction between your yearning for peace and the fact that you raised a tribe of fighters?

“I don’t see it as a contradiction. I was never a pacifist, and I also never deluded myself into thinking we came to an empty land and that the occupation is a caprice of people who see themselves as Wild West sheriffs. My family was brought up to make the greatest possible contribution to society. However, I never considered myself a militarist and did not see military service as a value in itself.”

Since leaving the Knesset, in 2011, Oron, together with other Israelis, has met on several occasions with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other senior Palestinian Authority figures in Ramallah. The last time was five months ago.

“Abu Mazen [Abbas] tried to persuade us that he is serious about reaching a permanent agreement, and that it’s we who are not,” Oron recalls. “He told us, ‘I want to continue with [PM Benjamin] Netanyahu what I started with Ehud Olmert. I want to go on talking. I am ready to enter into serious negotiations.’

“But Netanyahu’s behavior,” Oron continues, “led Abbas to conclude that Israel’s aim was to go on playing with negotiations, because Netanyahu understands that without this game, the whole world will gang up on him. In practice, his intentions aren’t serious – it’s make-believe negotiations. I definitely sensed that Abu Mazen was in despair over Netanyahu. ‘You don’t want it, the Jews don’t want it’ – that’s the refrain I hear from leading Palestinians. In fact, it’s gone so far that there is a big argument among them about whether to pursue a dialogue even with people like us. They say, ‘You’re good people, we know, but you’re part of the cover, the deception.’”

If Netanyahu had entered into serious talks with Abbas in 2009, where would we be today?

“I know there are many left-wing Israelis who believe that there is no longer a chance for an agreement. I’ve always thought that, after a tough internal debate, a Palestinian majority will accept the Clinton blueprint, the Geneva Agreement. Only a blind person could not have noticed the coalition that arose recently, of the Jordanians, the Saudis, the PA and the Egyptians. It spoke in the clearest terms about a preference for a two-state solution to quell Islamic ferment and radicalism, along with a desire to alleviate the plight of the Palestinians. Netanyahu has never taken advantage of the opportunities that were presented to him, despite the very real danger that we will ultimately be left without an interlocutor like Abu Mazen.

“I believe that Netanyahu is simply psychologically incapable of signing off on the partition of Jerusalem and a return to the 1967 borders,” Oron continues. “During his terms, we’ve seen a disproportionate preoccupation with Iran, under the illusion that we can cope with that danger alone. Billions of dollars were poured into that effort, which had an additional motivation: to change the agenda and, by inflating the Iranian issue, obscure the major danger we face, namely the conflict with the Palestinians.”

Let’s say Netanyahu doesn’t want to advance negotiations but also doesn’t want to annex the territories. What is his strategy?

“Three approaches have been dominant in Israel recently. One says: ‘There’s no alternative, we must maintain control of the territories, and in the end we will subjugate them.’ This is the view of Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman. The contrary approach states that we have to strive to find a solution, otherwise we endanger our survival. In the Netanyahu era, a third thesis, which is gathering momentum, has emerged: that since there is no solution, we need to manage the conflict. Both Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Moshe] Ya’alon espouse this approach. They want to see two Palestinian entities: a weakened one in the West Bank under Abu Mazen, and a ruling but weakened one in Gaza, under Hamas.

“The present war may have undercut this approach somewhat, but we have to look closely at what happened here this summer. A Palestinian unity government was formed, which from Israel’s point of view embodied a serious option for negotiations. Hamas was weakened, Abbas established a government of technocrats, effectively without Hamas activists, and started to regroup. Hamas wanted to make Abbas responsible for paying salaries and dealing with sewage, water and electricity, because Hamas was incapable of maintaining the state apparatus in Gaza alone, especially with Egypt and the Arab world on its case. A senior Palestinian figure once told me, ‘Hamas understands that only Fatah can bring about the Palestinian state, and that Hamas can then seize control of it.’

“Hamas now understands that two avenues are open to it. One of them is to undergo a process of domesticization and a bourgeoisification. I think that the thrust of the national unity government was in the direction of those in Hamas who think that this is the only way. When Netanyahu declared that he would not talk to Abbas as long as the unity government existed – even if Abbas was ready to talk peace – he was effectively saying: ‘I want Hamas in Gaza, I want Abbas here, I want both weakened, and then I can manage the conflict without being compelled to move toward a final settlement, and I will be free of internal and external pressure.’ If Abbas is weakened and Hamas rules in Gaza, that’s a great excuse for Netanyahu not to negotiate. This is the model that guided the government until this summer.”

Are you saying Netanyahu made a major contribution to strengthening Hamas and to the outbreak of this latest round of violence?

“I definitely find a connection between Netanyahu’s policy of allowing a total impasse to exist in negotiations with the Palestinians since he came to power in 2009, and those events. I also think that without a solution, the Zionist project is done with.”

Could the war in Gaza have been prevented tactically as well as strategically?

“A war of no choice occurs when an army deploys against you and is about to attack. Our conflict with the Palestinians no longer follows that model, so the question of when you need to return fire is more complicated. I was in favor of the operation. I thought we had reached a moment when Hamas was willing to antagonize the entire Middle East in order to drag Israel in. Hamas was clearly not heeding the calls by Abbas and Egypt not to aggravate the situation. Netanyahu, who proved more than once that he could act with restraint, finally had no choice but to respond. He also had no choice but to try to eliminate the threat of the tunnels, so there was no avoiding a ground entry. I myself thought we should have left Gaza unilaterally a month ago and declared a cease-fire. And if the other side violated it? Then there would be no choice but to respond again... I don’t know anyone on the left who denies Israel’s right to self-defense.”

But whenever it comes to a concrete discussion, people say, “Not now.” When do we have the right to realize that principle?

“When you arrive at that junction, even if it’s due in part to our government’s disastrous policy, and you see that Hamas is trying – and succeeding – to drag the state into a confrontation, you have no choice but to respond and prevent the shooting. The trouble is that this mode of stagnation and conflict management constantly ratchets up the violence and entangles us internationally. We need to get out of this cycle of folly.”

But how can we reach an agreement with Abbas when the PA is split?

“Hamas, in several agreements, gave Abbas the authority to conduct talks. I am not ignoring the allegation that Hamas afterward torpedoed the talks. But even then, if we had reached an agreement with the PA – which represents the majority of Palestinians and controls the West Bank – with the backing of the Arab League, the Quartet and the whole world, from that moment the conflict would become the whole world vs. Hamas.”

What do you think about the lack of proportion between the number of deaths in the Gaza war – so many more on their side, half of them civilians?

“It’s absolutely awful, it is part of the great difficulty with which I live. Even just wars or just operations do not ‘purify’ the terrible things that happen in them – and terrible things happen. Anyone who doesn’t live this and understand it completely is out of it. He has configured for himself a world of values different from mine.”

Visiting Barghouti

During his last decade as an MK, Oron paid visits every few weeks to his friend Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences plus 40 years in an Israeli prison. A key figure in Fatah, Barghouti was convicted in 2004 of responsibility for the murder of Israelis in the second intifada, as commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Oron continued to visit Barghouti after leaving the Knesset three years ago, to discuss a possible permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement. But someone high up decided to put an end to the meetings: When Oron applied to the prison service to arrange a visit, he was refused.

“They allowed me to meet him for two years after I left the Knesset, and suddenly that possibility was blocked,” he reveals, adding, “Israel made a vital mistake by not finding a way to release him in one of the recent rounds [of prisoner exchanges], such as in the Shalit deal.”

How so?

“Throughout his entire time in prison, Barghouti has backed Abbas’ moves, including forsaking terrorism as a strategic instrument. Israel is counting on a scenario in which there will not be elections in the PA and Abbas will never be replaced. That is a foolish illusion. Many Palestinians consider Barghouti a serious candidate to succeed Abu Mazen and be our partner in a solution of two states for two peoples. I see him as a serious candidate for a dialogue. People in Israel who don’t want that solution are very fearful of that possibility.”

If it were up to you, would you have released him long ago?

“Without a doubt. But as part of a process, not a one-time gesture. There must be an Israeli message signaling a change of consciousness – namely: We want to save the Zionist project, and that necessitates terminating the occupation with an accord. But unilateral moves will cause additional disasters. To reach an agreement we need a partner, and that partner is at hand, and has international backing, plus we have the Arab League initiative for a solution. Barghouti is capable of leading the PA or being part of the leadership, of receiving legitimization from the Palestinians and arriving with us at a solution to the conflict.”

Two years ago, after Operation Pillar of Defense, Barghouti said that the operation had aggrandized Hamas and that “the Israelis understand only force.” Do you agree?

“I know many Palestinians think that the big changes in the Middle East occurred only after massive force was applied against Israel. From the Yom Kippur War, which brought about the peace with Egypt; the Lebanon War, which led to the IDF’s withdrawal; the first intifada, which led to Oslo; and the second intifada, which they believe brought about the disengagement from Gaza. I don’t need Barghouti to tell myself that instead of making these compromises after outbreaks of brutal violence, we could have made them at our own initiative. That would undermine the argument that we understand only force, a claim I reject. This is the essence of the disagreement between Hamas and Fatah.

“Whenever we forsake the path of negotiations and compromise, we play into the hands of Hamas and strengthen the radical elements in Palestinian society. Let’s remember that there are more extreme groups than Hamas, as we see in Syria and Iraq.”

‘Wacko left’

Oron resigned from the Knesset after Meretz fared poorly in the election of February 2009, during his first stint as party leader. It was claimed that his partial support for Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the dominance of the security discourse seriously worsened the party’s situation. Under the leadership of his successor, Zahava Gal-On, Meretz doubled its Knesset representation and has done well in the polls. But her partial support for Operation Protective Edge and the return of the security discourse have again cut into the party’s support.

Today, more than ever, it looks like the center-left has no chance of returning to power.

“I refuse to accept the deterministic approach, that everyone is in the right-wing camp. It’s not so – not according to Israel’s history, to what’s happening now or, especially, according to what needs to happen. What you’re actually saying is, ‘Let’s start looking for passports from other countries.’ I’m not into that.”

Some say the only way for collective awareness to be forged that peace is an existential need, is for a purely right-wing government to be formed, one that will refuse outright to negotiate, and bring about an international boycott and economic crisis. That will generate mass awareness of the need for peace.

“Don’t think I’m not tempted to think like that. But that line of thought reflects despair at the possibility of change, a desperate call for someone outside to force peace on us. Something very peculiar happened in the last election, as a result of the social-protest movement. The dangerous illusion was sown that we could now concentrate on domestic social issues. But these are critical issues, with which I dealt throughout my public life. In the end, we ended up with a government with a seemingly different agenda, not like the ‘wacko left’ and its focus on the Palestinian issue. That agenda blew up in our face very violently. The next election needs to be a referendum between the camp that says two states for two nations, and those who want to keep going around in a circle of folly. The left needs to say very clearly that an option exists and must be realized.”

This summer’s war showed that in the internal Israeli confrontation, the Arabs are only an excuse. That what we see was another round in the class and culture war between rich and poor, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim. Have you ever contemplated why the left is unable to penetrate other social and cultural circles and remains elitist and marginal?

“I admit to that feeling and that failure. I wish I had an answer about how to breach those cultural and social barriers. I was a member of the Knesset’s Finance Committee for 20 years. The social-welfare organizations would say to me: ‘Jumus, you’re great, but don’t get involved in Palestinian affairs.’ Or: ‘You’re a good guy, but you’re a kibbutznik and an Ashkenazi and you love Arabs and aren’t familiar enough with [Jewish] tradition.’ This conflict is propelled by the Palestinian problem, but the fact is that a barrier exists; there’s a basic alienation that we’ve had difficulty overcoming.”

When Oron’s son Uri, a pilot, was born, a few weeks after the Six-Day War, the nurse in the delivery room predicted – not too remarkably – that the newborn would grow up to be a soldier. His mother, Nili, replied, like many mothers before and since, “By the time he grows up he won’t need to be drafted, because we’ll have peace.”

Some would say that this wish, which you’ve cultivated with others for decades, is really wishful thinking.

“What motivates me is the dream. People who dream a lot at night get up in the morning with nightmares. I prefer to cope with the nightmares and not stop dreaming. I will continue to dream that we will have a society of solidarity here, egalitarian and without terrible disparities; I will continue to dream that full human rights will prevail here; and I will continue to dream that there will be a solution to the conflict. Nili always says, ‘I’ve been ready all these years to accept the fact that you were often not home and were running around, if you will have contributed two grams to our having peace here.’”