'Barak Is Wrong, Olmert Is Right'

Once a Peace Now activist, Yuli Tamir won't join Kadima, but says changing leadership now would be 'suicide'.

On Tuesday morning, exactly 30 years after the 24-year-old student Yuli Tamir set out from her Jerusalem home for the first Peace Now demonstration at Malchei Yisrael Square (today's Rabin Square), Education Minister Yuli Tamir set out from her home in Ramat Aviv, accompanied by two bodyguards, for the President's Residence to attend a meeting on projects for youth.

A large headline in the newspaper that lay on the backseat of her official vehicle stated that a new report, distributed by Peace Now, shows that despite the commitments made by the government - to which she belongs - to freeze construction in the Jewish settlements in the territories, thousands of new apartments are sprouting up in 101 settlements across the West Bank.

An even larger headline reported on a stormy meeting of the Labor Party Knesset faction, due to the increasing feeling that the party's chairman, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is planning to resign from the government.

These two news items were at the heart of the first policy interview given by the only one of the Peace Now founders to have reached the summit of political leadership. During the ride, which took a little more than an hour, Tamir spoke about the government and the party.

The path that Tamir, a professor of philosophy, traversed between April 1, 1978 and April 1, 2008, in many ways parallels the path of the Zionist peace camp and includes coming to terms with the consolidation of the occupation and the adaptation to the continued violation of human rights. Nasty tongues will claim that this is just a matter of bending principles in favor of personal ambition. Three times Tamir bet on the right horse - once on Ehud Barak, a second time on Amram Mitzna and a third time on Amir Peretz. But if and when Ehud Barak decides to run again for Labor Party head, she will not be one of his darlings. That is, unless she institutionalizes her support for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and joins Kadima ("out of the question," according to her).

"Rocking the boat at this point in time is total madness," she asserts decisively with regard to the possibility of Barak leading Labor out of the government. "This is irresponsible, it is suicide for the country. I agree with [National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin] Fuad Ben-Eliezer's apocalyptic prophesies. A year from now, or two years from now at most, a violent struggle will begin over one state for two peoples, which could involve Israel's Arab citizens - and we are liable to lose them as well.

"There isn't going to be any government and there isn't going to be any Knesset that is more attentive to the need for an agreement than the current government and Knesset. In any future constellation, the situation will be worse. Despite all the reservations, it is better to keep the status quo. I am less interested in whether or not the Labor Party will survive. In any case, I am not certain that it is capable of flying an ideological banner.

"And supposing we win the elections, what will happen between the moment we declare elections and the moment a new government gets to work? We will waste all the time that remains to us on the election campaign. This is abysmal insanity. We have to allow Olmert and [Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni to take us to the end of 2008 with an outline for peace, and go into elections with that. On this matter, I see myself returning to my younger days and standing at intersections to persuade people, even if passersby curse me and spit on me. This will be an existential fight. If we lose it, we will know that we have lost the state's future. But should we win at the last moment, there is a chance that we will save ourselves from something we ourselves created. If we do not fight for two states for two peoples and separate from the isolated settlements, we don't exist. Hence my sweeping support for this government."

The chairman of your party is saying that the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), is weak, that it is impossible to trust that if we pull out of the West Bank, the Palestinians will not bombard us.

Tamir: "The head of my party is wrong. The head of my government right. We have no choice but to conduct intensive negotiations with Abu Mazen. At the moment he is the key elected factor in the PA. We should be giving him far more than we are giving him now. This constitutes the main challenge for this government. If we fail in this regard and we convince everyone that there is no partner, the Labor Party can shut up shop and so can Kadima.

"If there is no partner, what do we have to offer? That we will live by the sword better than by the right will? I see internal quarrels in the Labor Party but I don't see ideological debates or camps. There is no path and there is no party. Maybe the time has come to convene a dovish camp that will be an answer to the hawkish camp. I don't believe in revenge. This cycle of you liquidating him and he liquidating you doesn't lead to any good. Liquidations are always a two-edged sword."

You sound like a supporter of the head of Kadima and are clearly opposed to the leader of your own party.

"If the diplomatic line guiding the head of my party were the line guiding the prime minister, I would have a problem. The prime minister and Kadima are advancing a very clear diplomatic line and it would be ridiculous if the Labor Party were perceived as a brake on and not an accelerator to this process. The party needs to decide what it wants to be; if it wants to live, it must be among the leaders of the process, alongside Olmert and Livni.

"When Mitzna ran, they said he wouldn't take off because he was too leftist - and we won 19 Knesset seats. Afterward they said Amir Peretz would fail because he comes from places that aren't traditional Labor Party strongholds, and again we won 19 seats. I assume that if there were elections today with Ehud Barak, who is taking a right-wing position, we would find ourselves in more or less the same place."

Do you see another leader who could take Labor into the next elections?

"I don't think so. We in the party are addicted to primaries. There is a chairman and he has to know about and account for the party's ideological elements and that he is liable to absorb criticism from them if he doesn't head in a reasonable direction. He has to understand that we have never succeeded in attracting people out of fear, but rather out of a hope that it could be better. The right is always better at scaring. The dream of some Labor Party members that if we move toward the right, we will take over the right is delusional. I don't see any reason why a right-winger who doesn't believe in a peace agreement would prefer Labor to the Likud. If we were a party of principles, we would have a lot more power than if we were to move to the right and receive three more Knesset seats. There are many people at the top of the party who think the way I do."

You are talking about people at the top. Where are the women at the top? Where is the next generation of female leaders?

"I have three female colleagues in the faction: [MKs] Colette Avital, Shelly Yachimovich and Orit Noked. All three of them are women of very high quality."

Are you expecting a new political map? A phase two big bang?

"The ideological bang has already happened. Olmert and I were on either side of a gigantic ideological barrier and when I heard his speech at [David] Ben-Gurion's grave [in November 2007], I said that I would not have written it any differently. The center of the political map is located more or less in the square where Peace Now sat. I myself haven't deviated from that center. The prime minister's views are also very close to mine in social and educational terms. I haven't seen any prime minister who was as involved in social issues as Olmert is. I have seen his involvement in education reform, in the well-baby clinics and also in the small details of the report on children at risk and in aid of Holocaust survivors and pensioners."

What do you reply to the assertion that the Labor cabinet ministers, including yourself, are in Olmert's pocket at a time when Shas is extracting everything it wants from him? How is it that a graduate of Peace Now agreed to sit beside former minister of strategic affairs Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu?

"Our party is to blame for the power of Shas and Lieberman - it derives from the faction's weakness. We are always quarreling among ourselves and voting half here, half there - thereby neutralizing ourselves. How can I complain that the prime minister is seeking new partners when we are an irresponsible partner? If Barak were to say that he wants to improve the everyday life of the Palestinians, Shas would not stand in his way. I don't belong to the pacifist camp and I take security considerations seriously. But I am hearing more moderation and willingness from the security sources than from the political sources. As for Lieberman, to this day there has been no disclosure of the governmental processes he influenced. Personally, I have never exchanged a single word with him at government meetings and I didn't consider him a partner."

The car glides swiftly along a stretch of Highway 443. Concrete cubes block the road to the Palestinian village of Beit Sira, and a handful of drivers wait behind them for passengers, next to yellow minibuses. Human rights activists, among them a number of Tamir's colleagues from Peace Now, avoid traveling on this road. Tamir says she has no problem with it. She signed the Geneva Accords initiated by Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, which propose border adjustments, the annexation of the large settlement blocs and land swaps. She insists, mistakenly, that the agreement includes the annexation of the Ariel bloc to Israel. To enlarge the territory of the Gaza Strip, without using Israeli land, Tamir proposes bringing Egypt into the territorial exchange deal (Egypt has rejected a similar proposal initiated by Professor Yehoshua Ben-Arieh).

What would you have said had you been told 30 years ago that one day you would be a member of a government that bombards the Gaza Strip and builds a separation fence?

"There are processes that have become established, like Highway 443, and I have always been in favor of a fence. When our citizens are killed in terror attacks, I am not squeamish. This is not the role of the left. It must be activist with respect to a comprehensive solution and to the needless harming of civilians on the other side. All of us are wondering and pondering, but when they are shooting at the children, you can't just stand idly by.

"Wanting peace doesn't mean being a punching bag. I am in favor of talking with Hamas about a cease-fire and the return of [kidnapped soldier] Gilad Shalit. But it will be necessary to ascertain that the cease-fire will not be exploited like what happened in Lebanon. If it is possible to arrive at a prolonged hudna (truce), this must be done. To me, it seems that this is exactly what the government is trying to do at the moment, just as it is trying to enter into negotiations with the Syrians. With respect to the fear of Iranian elements gaining control over our borders, Gaza and Syria are worrying us to the same extent.

"I am critical of the fact that we aren't making life easier for the inhabitants of the West Bank. Nearly all internal roadblocks have to be removed and people have to be allowed regular passage to work and to school. They should be able to see the difference between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Anything that allows them to lead a normal life. This isn't happening and I criticize that. It is definitely possible to change the outline in a way that will allow for faster and more decisive implementation. This is the true test. If economic stability emerges there, they will see the difference between Gaza and the West Bank."

This week Peace Now marked the 30th anniversary of the movement's founding. Do you have reason to celebrate?

"We have reason to be proud. Back then we said things that won us tons of scorn, we were on the border of delegitimization, and we were right in every word, including the bleak prophesies. However, I'm not celebrating. The word 'regret' is too little to describe my inner pain in light of the fact that now we have persuaded the public that we are right, we are encountering a new reality.

"The solution that was possible in April 1978 has become much less realizable in April 2008. We knocked on the gates but we didn't succeed in opening them. We wasted 30 years and we don't have another 30 years. The state of Israel inside the Green Line [pre-1967 Six-Day-War border] would be in a different situation if all the resources that were invested in the Jewish settlements in the territories had been invested in the areas south of Be'er Sheva and north of Carmiel. The demographic problem would have looked entirely different as would the urban, moral and educational infrastructures.

"A few days ago I met with members of Young Peace Now and I said to myself, 'I feel so sorry for them. Today it is much harder to make peace than it would have been when I was their age.' I educated my daughters to coexistence but during the period of the terror attacks I told them that if an Arab got on a bus, they should get off. Of course, not for racist reasons. Incidentally, at every Arab school I visit, they greet me with peace songs and there is always a picture of [Yitzhak] Rabin. I can't say the same about the Jewish schools.

"The fear is far more palpable today than the hope. I remember us sitting in a tent across from the Prime Minister's Office. We were sure that if the government adopted our path, everything would look different. And now, here I am, a member of the government, and I'm feeling terrible frustration that we aren't leaving any hope for our children."