There Is a Partner

A few days after Rabin's assassination, Shimon Peres invited the leaders of Meretz to discuss the guidelines of the government.

A few days after Rabin's assassination, Shimon Peres invited the leaders of Meretz to discuss the guidelines of the government. The representatives of the left-wing party wanted the document being drafted to express support for the Palestinians' right to self-determination. None of them expected that, more than two years after the agreement regarding mutual recognition between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the architect of Oslo would have a problem making such a declaration. To their great surprise, Peres gave them a look full of reprimand. "Do you understand that this means a Palestinian state?" he asked. "Absolutely," replied the guests in unison. "And who told you that I'm in favor of a Palestinian state?" replied the prime minister offhandedly. "I believe in functional compromise."

A short time later, Peres rejected the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement, claiming that the public would oppose giving up the Jordan Valley. He abandoned the Palestinian channel in favor of the Syrian channel, and reached a dead-end in both. Peres, who is responsible for the establishment of innumerable settlements, including Ariel, still has difficulty shelving the "Jordanian option" once and for all. Ehud Barak, who was the next Labor prime minister, also sought to escape from the agreement with the Palestinians in the bosom of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad. Only after the humiliating failure of the negotiations with Syria did Barak try to dictate to Yasser Arafat the conditions of the final status agreement, beginning with the borders of the Palestinian state.

If Peres believed that peace heralded a new Middle East, Barak tends to compare Israel to a "villa in the jungle." The principles of his agreement with the denizens of the jungle are: "We are here and they are there" - with a fence in the middle. The next Labor leader, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, and with him Peres and the other party ministers, were (and still are) members of Sharon's governments, which made the Israeli public regress 20 years to the era of "There is nobody to talk to," totally destroyed the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority and prevented its rehabilitation. They contributed their part to turning the disengagement from chosen parts of the occupied territories (chosen by Israel) into a substitute for the two-state solution. They are partners to pushing away the rapprochement and the agreement from Israeli discourse, in order to make room for despairing of peace and for taking unilateral steps.

The new Labor Party chairman, Amir Peretz, comes from a different school of thought. He didn't need the second intifada, or even the first one, in order to recognize the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. He spoke to the Palestinians without barriers and face to face already in the 1980s, at a time when the law prohibited contacts with the PLO. Peretz believes that satisfied Palestinians are much better for the Jews than Palestinians who have been screwed - but, as he declared in his victory speech, peace is not an act of kindness toward the neighbors, but a key to the economic prosperity of Israel and to an improvement in the lives of its citizens.

If Peretz adheres to his political and moral beliefs, the revolution in the Labor Party will not end with an upgrading of the status of the economy and social issues on its agenda. If he has the strength to confront its power-hungry members, Labor can anticipate a revolution in the political arena as well. It will return to its place at the head of the peace camp, and will no longer be partner to a government that considers the peace process a prize for the Arabs, and to a policy of positing conditions and obstacles on the way to negotiations. For the first time, it is headed by a leader who did not participate in the march of folly of the settlements, neither as an army general nor as a government minister.

Ten years after Rabin's assassination, we have an Israeli political leader who considers the occupation a moral, security and economic burden, a man who is in no need of internal or external pressure to leave the territories. Finally, peace has emerged from the back benches and returned to center stage.

Palestinian neighbors: You have a partner, don't let the fanatics harm him.