It is not yet a tidal wave. But it is more then a ripple. It is a wave in the process of formation.
During the last few months a realignment of Israeli public opinion has started to become noticeable. It has several causes: public tiredness of the endless cycle of bloodshed, the perception that there is no military solution, the worsening of the economic crisis, the untiring activity of the radical peace movements.
The list of the accumulating symptoms is getting longer: the movement of the young men who refuse army service in the occupied territories, the revolt of the airforce pilots, the Ayalon-Nusseibeh initiative, the statement of the four former Secret Service chiefs, the criticism voiced by the Chief-of-Staff, and, this week, the public attack of the reserve officers on the continued existence of the Netzarim settlement in the Gaza Strip.
The Geneva initiative gave this change a great boost in Israel, as well as an impressive echo abroad. The participation of international personalities in the solemn ceremony in Switzerland lent it status and prestige. The decision of the US Secretary of State and the General Secretary of the United Nations to receive the leaders of this initiative was a gesture of public support for the peace movement. (So was the warm personal message conveyed by the President of Germany, Johannes Rau, to the ceremony in which a Peace Prize was awarded to Sari Nusseibeh and me.)
When the wind changes, the weathercocks start to move. That is happening these days. The most sensitive ones, like Yoel Markus in “Haaretz”, already began attacking Sharon some months ago. Now this is becoming a fashion in the media. The very same commentators who served for three years as propagandists for the government and the army high command, have suddenly discovered that everything done during the last three years was, after all, a terrible mistake.
In the wake of the pundits come the politicians. The Labor Party functionaries, who are mounting a venomous attack on Beilin and Co., have themselves published a peace program not very different from the Geneva document (not that anybody paid much attention.) But the most interesting phenomenon is the public conversion of Ehud Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem.
Those who have followed Olmert’s career for a long time see him as the epitome of the political opportunist. He wants to be the Likud chairman after Sharon, whom he is loyally serving now. His main competitor, Binyamin Netanyahu, is following an extreme nationalist line. Olmert, who has done the same in the past, has suddenly changed the color of his skin. This week he has let loose a surprising attack both on the Greater Israel idea and on the settlers, and come out for “unilateral withdrawal”, arguing that the continued occupation will turn Israel, God forbid, into a bi-national state. He did not go into details about Israel’s future borders.
Clearly, the sensitive nose of Olmert has picked up the change in public opinion. But the Likud candidate for Prime Minister is nominated by the 3000-odd members of the Likud Central Committee, a notoriously extreme right-wing body that has turned down even Sharon’s so-called moderate proposals. Olmert, so it seems, believes that even this body is going to change.
Sharon himself has not changed. To him, the old adage about the leopard’s spots still applies. But he, too, finds it necessary to repeat again and again that he is for “painful concessions”, hinting that he is ready for “unilateral withdrawal” (from where? where to?) and talking about a meeting with the Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu-Ala (what for?). This does not prevent him from driving forward the building of the monstrous Wall that is cutting the Palestinian territory into ribbons.
The Palestinians, for their part, are very much aware of the importance of the change in Israeli public opinion. Abu-Ala’s efforts to organize a truce are designed to help this process. They, too, understand that a suicide bomber who causes massive slaughter in an Israeli town may well undo the tenuous steps towards change.
The direction of Palestinian policy is very important. I remember an event 31 years ago: in Bologna, Italy, the first large public Israeli-Arab conference took place after years of preparations. I was asked to make the opening speech for the Israeli side. I said: the Vietnam war is being won in American public opinion, the Algerian war was won in French public opinion, the Palestinian war will be won in Israeli public opinion.
Before making the speech, I showed it to the senior Arab representative, the Egyptian leftist leader Khaled Mohei-al-Din, one of the “Free Officers” who made the 1952 revolution. He agreed with me. But after delivering it, I was approached by an angry Palestinian who protested: “Your Israeli arrogance knows no limits! Do you think that what’s happening in Israel is more important than the Palestinian struggle?” I told him that it goes without saying that but for the valiant struggle of the Vietnamese and the Algerians, American and French public opinion would not have changed.
Two years later, Palestinian leaders appeared who voiced the same opinion. Sa’id Hamami, the PLO leader who started the first secret contacts with us, told his colleagues: “If the whole world recognizes us and Israel does not, what have we gained?” Issam Sartawi went even further, asking Yasser Arafat to concentrate entirely on changing Israeli public opinion, subordinating all other efforts to this supreme aim.
Arafat understood that the changing of Israeli public opinion is an important objective, but did not accept it as the single most important one. We have talked about this many times. It now seems that he recognizes the importance of this effort more than ever, as shown by the blessing he gave to the Palestinian delegation in Geneva.
There remains the question: if the change of public opinion in Israel does indeed gather momentum and become a big wave -” how will it manifest itself in political terms? In other words, how will it change the political set-up and achieve a majority in the Knesset?
Not a single person in Israel is able to answer this question now.
Yossi Beilin is trying to create a party that will unite his followers with the Meretz party. This may turn out to be a serious political mistake.
Meretz was hit hard at the last elections, losing half its strength and receiving only some 5% of the vote. It is considered an elitist Ashkenazi (Israeli of European origin) party, far removed from vital sections like the oriental Jews, the Russian immigrants, the religious and even the Arab citizens. Beilin, himself a member of the Ashkenazi elite, will not change this public image.
If the Geneva Initiative becomes the banner of one party on the margin of the political scene, it will be condemned to political irrelevance. Beilin himself will descend to the status of chief of a small party -” if he wins the competition for the party’s leadership, which is not at all certain. Perhaps it would be better for him to retain the lofty status of the bearer of a national message, free from factional interests.
The central problem is the Labor party. Its reaction to the Geneva initiative showed it in all its shabbiness. From the pathetic Shimon Peres to the shrill Dalia Itzik, not to mention Ehud Barak with his personal psychological problems, they attacked Beilin, their former comrade, whom they had pushed out of the party on the eve of the last elections.
Yet without the Labor party, the Left will not become a dominant political force, in a position to win the next elections. The creation of a viable substitute would take many years, and Beilin’s new party will not achieve this in the foreseeable future. But in the entire Labor Party, one cannot, with the best will in the world, perceive a plausible candidate for Prime Minister.
That may give the Likud another chance. It is not impossible that Sharon will again deceive the public, as he did at the last two elections, when he presented himself as the man of peace and security. He will speak about “painful concessions” and show photos with Abu-Ala. It is also possible that another Likud candidate devoid of principles, such as Netanyahu or Olmert, will come up with a vague peace message.
Either way: if the Israeli Left fails to create a dominant political force, the change in public opinion may remain without results, a powerful wind that does not blow into any sail, steam without a locomotive.