Peace Deal Splits Israeli Right But Resets Promise of Oslo
Netanyahu wins key votes, with many hard-liners pushed to fringe
Israel's political landscape has undergone extraordinary shifts in recent years, with many hard-line Zionists tempering their dream of a "Greater Israel" in order to accept a path toward practical peace.
This week's deal with the Palestinians, and thus the official embrace of the 1993 peace accords by the right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, shows how far that shift has gone.
Mr. Netanyahu is now setting the Jewish state on an inevitable path toward giving land to its Arab neighbors in exchange for peace.
He won over 11 of his 18 Cabinet members on Wednesday to support the deal, which relinquishes most of Israel's control of the town of Hebron and presses ahead with talks on more Palestinian self-rule.
But the acrimony of the debate during the 12-hour Cabinet meeting reveals the right's widening divisions. Cabinet members shouted insults and declared one another ideologically bankrupt.
Many of the dissenters represent Netanyahu's Likud party elite, who could not reconcile the deal with their lifelong opposition to a land-for-peace formula with the Palestinians.
The ideological purist of the bunch was Likud member Ze'ev (Benny) Begin, who said the deal an abandons the Jewish homeland and tendered his resignation from the Cabinet.
He stayed true to his father, the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who ceded the Sinai for peace with Egypt but was against ever giving more than a civic - not territorial - autonomy to the Palestinians.
The Herut Party that the elder Begin founded later merged with another to form the Likud. It was sworn to extending Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza, rejecting any territorial compromise for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and never negotiating with "terrorists" (read: Mr. Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization).
He and his disciples were are all ideological descendants of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of "Revisionist Zionism," a more nationalist and militant wing that struggled with Jewish socialists in pre-1948 British Palestine.
Today, Jabotinsky's thumbprint is all over Israel, from "Ze'ev Compound" - as Likud headquarters is called - to the Betar youth movement that has infused his credo into generations of conservatives.
But Netanyahu and the Cabinet moderates who voted for the agreement represent the new, more-pragmatic Likud members. And together with a core of more-liberal Israelis, they add up to a clear majority that endorses the peace accords with the Palestinians brokered in Oslo.
"Hebron is so much more significant than it would be otherwise, because it means that the other half of the country is already subscribing to it," says Hebrew University's Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist. In his rough calculations, that means that at least three-quarters of Israelis accept the accords.
Recent public opinion polls show that there has been an increase in the number of Israelis who want the peace process to continue, and a large majority of Israelis say some form of a Palestinian state is not necessarily desirable but admit that it is inevitable. Most fear war with Arab neighbors if Israel doesn't uphold its agreements.
Ideology still strong
That is not to say that all are jumping the doctrinaire ship for realpolitik. This is, after all, a state that canonized the words of Zionist founder Theodor Herzl: "If you will it, it is no dream."
Netanyahu lost support from the National Religious Party, which is opposed to giving parts of the Biblical land of Israel to Arabs. He also lost the support of some of those who are thought of as centrists in his Cabinet.
But former army generals Rafael Eitan and Ariel Sharon, while arguing that redeployment arrangements did not do enough to ensure the security of the settlers in Hebron, seemed to insiders to be acting partly out of revenge for Netanyahu's moves to marginalize them within the Likud party.
The fact that most ministers will stay in his coalition is evidence of their realization that there is not enough opposition to provide a more-hawkish alternative. They may also reflect a middle ground in Israel that is unsure of where it wants to go, craving peace but not wanting to make difficult concessions to reach it.
View from a vendor
It is the Israel of Tzion Amira, who runs a snack shop on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. His felafel stand is decked in all the sloganed bumper stickers of the Israeli right and left. "Goodbye, friend" reads one, the memorial message to slain peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin. Under it, an anti-Oslo sticker that is a play on the same words: "This is no peace, friend." Amira won't say whom he voted for. "I'm for them all," he says.
Despite the evolution in the Likud, it may be too early to write its ideological epitaph. As the Israelis and Palestinians head into final-status talks in the next two months - and as they wrangle in the interim over how much West Bank land Israel will cede in three additional troop redeployments - Netanyahu's ideological baggage will likely play a role in the kind of permanent settlement he will try to negotiate.
"One has to see it in the political pragmatic sense," says Shlomo Avineri, one of Israel's foremost historians of Zionism. "You have a government which won because of its very harsh criticism of Oslo, which found that it doesn't really have a choice but to proceed with Oslo. This is just one step on the Oslo road. Let's see what happens next."
Avineri doesn't think that Netanyahu's lukewarm support in his Cabinet will force him into forming a national unity government with the Labor Party any time soon.
The premier can avoid sharing power with them, while depending on their votes for any peace moves that must be passed through the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Netanyahu was set to win approval of some three-quarters of the 120-seat Knesset yesterday with votes from the left-wing opposition, which is not about to vote against the peace it brokered in 1993.
Of course, it might be easier to know left from right in Israel if it were a two-party system. But Israel uses proportional representation, with parties needing just 1.5 percent of the vote in order to qualify for a seat. The two major parties are conglomerates of others, and Likud - Hebrew for unity - has never been monolithic.
"This isn't a central government," former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir once said, "it's a circus." If so, there are currently 13 parties under the big top, and two new, undogmatic parties are unpredictable swing votes as Netanyahu continue in the peace process.
The Third Way, which voted in favor of the Hebron accord, supports the road to peace but has its own idea of a road map for reaching it: no compromise on the Golan Heights or Jerusalem, and a Palestinian autonomy compromise of the smallest possible amount of West Bank land.
The new Russian immigrant party also straddles the fence, opposing the power of the Israel's religious right while remaining sympathetic to the Jewish settlers. The National Religious Party, the patron of the settlers movement, voted against the accord. But ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties vote as their rabbi mentors tell them to, and thus two major religious parties are voting with Netanyahu.
This jumbled quilt explains the Cabinet vote. With so many parties - and with smaller parties' power bolstered by recent constitutional changes - there is less party discipline, and it's easier to "cross the aisle." And that in itself could be ideology's death knell.