What’s Left?

Even over a scratchy international phone line, there was no mistaking the sadness in Yuli Tamir’s voice. It was well past midnight Israeli time, and Tamir, a Cabinet minister, had just gotten home to Jerusalem after a long, difficult day struggling with the crisis. There were conversations with people in Nazareth, trying to hold things together, and meeting after meeting with other government officials.

Tamir was tired, but what I heard in her voice was not fatigue. It was frustration, an acknowledgment that after more than two weeks of horrific confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians, peace (despite seven excruciating years of Oslo and Camp David and one brief moment last summer when a deal actually seemed possible) was once again a distant illusion.

“I am very worried, but unlike most of my friends, I don’t think the left is dead and I don’t think we should regret our ideology or our dreams,” said Tamir.

“Everything will certainly be much harder now and much more painful. An enormous amount of rebuilding will have to be done – not just on the left, but of all internal relationships in Israel. And I must say we are deeply disappointed and irritated with Arafat. I would like to just shout at him, ‘You’re an idiot. You had the best deal imaginable on the table in front of you. Why didn’t you just take it?’ “

It’s not that people on the left like Tamir didn’t understand who they were dealing with. (Remember Yitzhak Rabin’s reluctance to even shake Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn?) Rather, they feel like they’ve been blindsided because they believed that Arafat and the Palestinian people had finally recognized the only way to improve their lives was to reach an accommodation with Israel.

“We are going to be next-door neighbors forever, so we have to sort out a modus of co-existence,” says Amos Oz. “There is no alternative to this.”

But then, stunned, they watched Arafat walk away from an offer of nearly 90 percent of the West Bank, a piece of Jerusalem, and international jurisdiction over Muslim holy sites. And they watched as the orchestrated violence of the past two weeks exploded across the country, with Arafat initially unwilling and then probably unable to control the forces he unleashed.

Now Israel’s left is reeling, wondering, perhaps for the first time since Peace Now was formed in 1978, whether compromise with the Palestinians has ever been possible. Virtually overnight, the classic questions of the right are now being asked by those on the left: How can you make peace with someone who doesn’t want it? How can you negotiate in good faith with someone who doesn’t honor agreements and resorts to violence at every difficult juncture?

“The so-called peace process has been a snare and a delusion,” says Frank Gaffney Jr., a former member of the Reagan State Department and the head of the Center for Security Policy in Washington. “The left’s premise has been that the Palestinian leadership and its followers were reconciled to a peace with Israel. Well, it’s just not true, and it hasn’t ever been true.”

The problem with this long-held position of the hawks, even now, as events threaten to spin out of control, is that it leaves Israel no options beyond an endless occupation and a permanent state of war. What’s the alternative to negotiation? A return to the days of the intifada? Does Israel go in and retake the territories, kick out the Palestinian Authority, and send them back into exile? And even if that happened, then what? Population transfer?

“Look, what should be done is very clear,” says Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. “I told Barak last year and again four weeks ago that I thought he should hold a press conference and, in sadness, not in anger, say that Israel looks forward to sitting down with the Palestinians and negotiating. As soon as they start arresting terrorists and keeping them in prison; outlaw Hamas; stop the flow of illegal weapons into the territories; and change their culture of vicious hatred of Jews by altering their textbooks, their radio and TV broadcasts, and their speeches. Of course, he didn’t listen.”

In the long run, the left is not likely to listen, either. Nor is it likely to draw the lasting lessons from the current crisis that those on the right believe it should. “This is a fight against Jews and Judaism,” Klein says, “not a fight to establish a Palestinian state.”

Though this view would once have been anathema to those on the left, things change. The stunning violence, the apparent depth of Arab hostility, and Arafat’s renewed popularity in the Arab world for standing up to the Israelis have all eroded the left’s resolve.

“There are some people in the Israeli peace movement who have been so bitterly disappointed,” says writer and activist Amos Oz, “that they now just shrug their shoulders and talk about endless fighting or hopeless conflict. I, however, don’t share that view.”

But even Oz, the brilliant novelist who has advocated a two-state solution since 1967 (when it was practically viewed as treason), admits he’s been forced to search his soul and re-examine his beliefs. Despite the shock of the way things have gone, Oz came to the same conclusions he’s held for 30 years.

And the simple reason might be called the politics of inevitability. “We have to live like two families in the same house,” he says. “I believe in English it is called a semi-detached house. We are going to be next-door neighbors forever, so we have to sort out a modus of co-existence. There is no alternative to this. Violence or no violence. Whether the enemy is sweet or whether the enemy is terrible. Whether he is reasonable or unreasonable. This is not about a love affair, and this is not about having a honeymoon. It is about life and death.”

As difficult as this position is to hold right now, Oz is a realist. He doesn’t trust the Palestinians, but he doesn’t believe this is about trust. It’s about constructing an agreement and an apparatus to maintain it. It’s about finding a way to solve the insoluble.

“It’s important to remember that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians know what the bottom-line solution will be. The question is, how much blood and suffering and tears will be shed before this solution is achieved? Put it this way,” he says finally. “I’m an optimist with no timetable.”

What’s Left?