The meeting with former Knesset member Prof. Aryeh Eldad, M.D. provides an intellectual experience to anyone interested in history, ideology and Israeli politics. Eldad, 66, was once the Israel Defense Forces’ chief medical officer and later an MK of the National Union party for 10 years. He is the son of author and columnist Israel Eldad (Scheib), a leader of the Lehi pre-state underground who is known as one of the greatest ideologists of the right.
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A long conversation with Eldad reveals he has no problem answering honestly on any topic, though this may not necessarily be a successful prescription for a politician. Eldad, a plastic surgeon and expert in burns, and a proud settler from Kfar Adumim who is without a doubt one of the most articulate spokesmen for the hard right, is no longer an active politician.
After Eldad was not reelected to the Knesset in 2013, he devoted himself to writing. The result is a new book (in Hebrew): “Things you see from here: What happens to the leaders of the right when they reach power,” a historical-political work, and as opposed to the initial fears of the reader, it avoids spilling over into areas of ideological manifesto and limits itself to the borders of research.
When Eldad is required to explain what led him to write the book, he says that since he entered politics he has been part of hundreds of political arguments. “At the end of the argument they would always hurl a winning argument at me: ‘When you achieve power, the leaders of the right change their skin and actually adopt the ideology of the left, of dividing the land. Which means that their ideology doesn’t last.’ This is a difficult argument. So I told myself: Historical and moral claims I know how to deal with quickly and easily. This is something different. I must study the matter.”
Maybe there is not really any well thought-out right-wing ideology?
“Right-wing ideology is certainly not something coherent where everyone toes the line. There is no single organized political theory here. But if there is one common denominator for the right, it says the attitude toward the Land of Israel is not instrumental – not a safe refuge, not a platform for the existence of the State of Israel, not secure borders, but the Land of Israel as a value. So truly only religious Zionism is mostly a partner to this assertion today, alongside significant parts of Likud. Maybe not the majority in Likud, but there are ideological core groups in Likud. They have representatives in the Knesset, such as Yariv Levin, Tzipi Hotovely and Zeev Elkin. I’m not claiming it’s a majority of the right and certainly not a majority of the people in Israel. But it does not free me from the belief in the righteousness of my path, and does not free me from the obligation to try and fight for it.”
I still don’t understand what the right is offering. I don’t understand the proposition in opposition to the left.
“I cannot pretend to speak in the name of the right. But the plan I supported and I still support, which is certainly not mine, is the one that says: ‘Jordan is Palestine.’ In other words, we have stopped fighting the scarecrow that says ‘there is no Palestinian people.’ We have understood that history created it in front of our eyes, and today we have a people facing us. We only say that the partition of the land has been carried out. There is West Jordan and East Jordan. And even if all our desires and their desires are not satisfied, the border between Israel and Palestine must be the Jordan [River]. Now, from here on there are quite a few nuances of how this could occur.”
In Israel, it is actually very accepted to sober up from the left to the right. Maybe you simply are refusing to recognize the fact that there can be an awakening on the right too?
“Certainly there can be an awakening in the opposite direction. I certainly can understand that a person who believes with all their heart that the Greater Land of Israel is the best diplomatic plan we have, will come after a few years and say: ‘Listen, I understood that it is impossible and I don’t want an Arab majority here one day, and to prevent an Arab majority I am willing to give up on the Land of Israel.’ It is something I can understand. I only think that this does not happen to them as a result of reaching power, but sometimes in order to reach power.”
Netanyahu the liar
Even after two years of research and writing, and 543 clear and concise but thought-provoking pages, Benjamin Netanyahu remains for Eldad an undeciphered prime minister. “He is without a doubt the hardest to decipher,” he admits.
“The minute you read [what he said] as the head of the opposition, and know what he did as prime minister – what he was willing to do with the Golan, for example – and what he said afterwards, you understand that the man is simply a liar. And then you lose the ability to judge the man by what he says, according to his declarations. The minute I understood that he would burn any lie detector he touched, you lose an essential tool to evaluate a person’s policies. It is impossible to believe a single word this man says. He says black, it can be white. He says ‘I never wanted to leave the Golan Heights,’ and you know it’s the opposite. You understand that his favorite diplomatic plan until a certain stage was Jordan is Palestine, and after that he comes and proposes two states for two peoples. Even today we don’t know if when he said ‘two states for two peoples’ whether he whispered to himself in his heart: ‘I just saying that.’
“I remember that once he said, ‘I always opposed the Disengagement [from Gaza].’ And I say: Hello, I was next to you, I saw your face turning into clay when your turn came in the decisive vote. Netanyahu walked by me, I saw on his face how he changed. In the end he came and said ‘in favor.’ It is possible to count 10 times in which he had the ability to bring down that plan and didn’t do it. You understand that the man has no problem lying. On any matter. I don’t know how to answer the question of what Netanyahu’s vision is. I have no answer, because it seems to me that he has no vision. He has a mission, he is the manager, the captain, there are a lot of rocks at sea, he will zig-zag between them. But the question if he has a national vision, where he wants to take Israel in another 20 years, it seems to me that this is almost a rude question.”
You grew up in an ideological home with a charismatic father. Netanyahu also grew up in an ideological home with an authoritative father.
“I’ll tell you what the difference is. Netanyahu grew up in an ideological environment that said: ‘We are the persecuted and just minority and the elites are harassing us, and don’t give us what we are entitled to and do not recognize our greatness.’ I grew up in a similar environment, of a persecuted minority. David Ben-Gurion ordered to fire my father from teaching. But I don’t remember that my father ever gave me the feeling that they took away what we deserved by law. That was not the case with Benzion Netanyahu. Benzion felt they stole the birthright he deserved. And Netanyahu grew up with this feeling, in order to compensate for this theft.”
Begin’s damage to the ideological right
Eldad says that because he saw himself as a person that ideology directs his political actions, he has respect for ideologues, on the right and the left. These are people who have a major idea beyond their immediate needs, or those of the country, he says. “Both Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir were ideological leaders, motivated by ideology, while the three who came after them from the ranks of Likud were pragmatic leaders. Ideology was not really the motivating force, maybe it was actually a burden.”
What stands out the most from your examination of Begin in your research?
“Begin saw from the prime minister’s seat only one thing that he did not see from the opposition benches: the necessity that was forced on him to create a linkage, the connection between the Palestinian problem and the peace with Egypt. It seems to me that he would have very happily given up on this linkage. His autonomy plan was not something new, it was in his storeroom. But he would bring it up in a different situation, when he was directly opposite the Palestinians and not in American-Egyptian mediation. But as for the Sinai, for example, he did not see anything new that he did not see before. The protocols show that after the Six-Day War, when he was a minister without portfolio in the Eshkol government, he was willing to withdraw to the international border both on the Golan and with Egypt in return for a peace agreement. I checked the reason and it was quite clear: Begin had a map of Greater Israel that matched the British Mandate map, the map that was inscribed on the symbol of the Etzel with the rifle raised and the slogan ‘Only Thus’ (‘Rak Kach’). This was the Land of Israel for him. Not what was written in the ‘Covenant of the pieces’ of our forefather Abraham, from the Nile to the Euphrates.
“In the end, the person who harmed the ideological right the most was Begin. I don’t think that he would have given up Judea and Samaria if he had remained in power. But Begin did not apply Israeli law and justice in the [West] Bank, did not annex Judea and Samaria, was willing to grant autonomy despite his twisting. The matter of the withdrawal to the last millimeter of the border was his precedent too. It was a precedent he created, so on this matter he created harm for generations.”
As for Yitzhak Shamir, he was “the exception that proved the rule. He was the one who proved that when you come equipped with a backbone of a certain type and with ideological determination of a certain type, you do not need to give up on the ideology when you take power. So he really succeeded in maneuvering, digging in, delaying, dragging [things out]. He was criticized that for years he did nothing. But in those years he built quite a lot of settlements and earned some time. On his part, the name of the game was to make time.”
But he lost the trust of the people and lost power.
“True, because he went to the Madrid Conference. He went to Madrid and so he lost the right in Israel. And he dug in for too long and insisted on all sorts of things, so he lost American support. These two things together brought him down.”
Ariel Sharon was the first prime minister of the right that Eldad had the opportunity of being in contact with as a politician.
“In Sharon’s case, we need to ask whether he really was a classic leader of the right. He really was a fascinating figure for study, because he was full of internal contradictions. On one side, I have no doubt the man was an unrivalled Zionist patriot. On the other, did he really change his ideology completely, or did he change his policies? In the end, I think Sharon was a pragmatic leader without peer. When it was appropriate to take the handle of a hoe and beat Etzel members during the ‘Hunting Season’ period, he did so with great enthusiasm. When it was appropriate to teach the settlers in Sebastia how to hit soldiers so they would not be evacuated, he happily took this on too. And when it was appropriate to build communities, he did it. And also to destroy them.
“The idea of withdrawing from Gaza was not born the minute they were about to put him and his sons on trial. The idea was there. [Sharon’s confidant] Dov Weissglass told how it went around, and every time Sharon took it off the agenda. Sometimes with great contempt. Sharon identified an interest that was a joint interest: He was interested in combining the security-diplomatic-settlement interest of Israel at that moment along with the interests of Ariel Sharon. In my opinion, for years the main mistake in the judgment and analysis of Sharon came because he had killed a lot of Arabs. And whoever kills a lot of Arabs with great enthusiasm must certainly be on the right.”
You say that we don’t need to look for a great ideological turning point here for Sharon, because there wasn’t one.
“Exactly. For years Sharon used the ideology of the right and the ideologues of the right – the hard core, in Gush Emunim, among the settlers – as a platform that he rode and used to attack his political rivals. He once said that given a different set of circumstances, he could have been the leader of the Labor Party. True, he had ideological residues. He did not relate to the Land of Israel the way Ehud Olmert did, as real estate. The Land of Israel was a value, but not a supreme or absolute value.”
Olmert actually grew up in a different family environment: Etzel, Beitar, Herut.
“Definitely. The prince, they used to call him. But first, education isn’t everything. He did not make the ideological values that motivated his parents into a force that motivated him. I’m not saying that a leader needs to be only motivated by ideology. But when I try to judge Olmert without dealing with the criminal aspect of his political history, there are unexplained holes. How he made his way from ‘liberated land will be returned’ to his last conversations with Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas]. A person who was ready in such a way or another to sell the Jerusalem skyline with the Holyland project for generations in return for filthy lucre, why wouldn’t he be willing to hand over the borders of Israel in return for personal interests? So even though he justified his decisions with pragmatic justifications, I think he was more an opportunist.”
The anomaly in human existence
The previous intifada had great influence on Eldad. He had just finished his job as the IDF’s chief medical officer and was appointed the head of the plastic surgery department at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem in Jerusalem. The terrorist attacks did not stop. He treated many burn victims, including a number of terrorists.
“I remember mostly the isolation,” he says about his meetings with the terrorists. “In other words, I could have disappointed myself because I did not feel the ideological hatred toward him that was expected from me. There was some 17-year-old young man who blew [himself up] near Mea She’arim, whose [words] I will remember all my life. He was a young man who got off a bus in the winter with a backpack filled with explosives. He looked for some sort of gathering and wanted to blow up. There was a wedding hall there. The people began to leave just then. He told me: ‘I wanted to blow up at the entrance but there weren’t enough children there, so I wanted to set it off 30 meters further ahead, where there were a few mothers with strollers.’ And then he slipped and fell into a puddle, and the bomb got wet, and nothing happened to anyone, only he arrived with burns. But that sentence, ‘there weren’t enough children there,’ I remember.”
He spoke Hebrew?
“Yes. And there was Hussein Mikdad who spoke English. But he was a 40-year-old Hezbollah man whose treatment was a real challenge. Both because he was a real man and did not say a word, and he lost two legs and one arm and two eyes. He had two fingers, that’s all he had. I had no problem treating him. A person covered with burns, in terrible pain, needs to be treated, to be operated on, to transplant skin and send him straight to prison.”
That’s interesting. Because the right-wing camp you belong to today thinks ...
“That we need to shoot them even when they are on the sidewalk. If I was a soldier in Hebron and somebody jumped me with a knife, I would try to shoot him with a burst and not a lone bullet, so it would be sure he died. But if he is only wounded, lying on the sidewalk, I would go to the hospital to treat him. It’s absurd and anomalous, but we live in an anomaly. There are situations in human existence that are anomalous situations.”
You started your political career in the Moledet party. Were you really a supporter of transfer? Do you still believe in this solution?
“Even Gandhi [Rehavam Ze’evi] did not think it was a practical solution. He didn’t think there was a scenario in which one day Israel would put Israeli Arabs on trucks and move them to TransJordan. He only thought it was legitimate to discuss it, that it was something that Israel needed to deal with. He didn’t really think that he could expel the Arabs.”