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October 26, 2001
Left Behind
Israel’s Labor Party is silenced as violence erupts.
Abbas Momani/AFP
“Israel is on its own,” Sharon told the Knesset.

JERUSALEM—“You, who killed my father, you are temporary residents and Canaanites. I’m letting you know: We are staying because [the land] is ours.” That was how the son of Israel’s slain tourism minister warned Palestinians when he spoke at the state funeral.

In life, Rehavam Zeevi was the modern incarnation of ideas many Israelis thought had disappeared. Zeevi, who advocated the physical transfer of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, only came into his ministerial seat on the heels of right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in February. Two days before Zeevi was killed on October 17 by Palestinian assassins, he had tendered his resignation in protest of government policies he believed were soft on Arabs.

But in his death, Zeevi may have brought to pass both the final downfall of a meaningful Israeli left, as well as a further hobbling of the Palestinian leadership governing parts of the Occupied Territories. “Listen well, killers of Ramallah, listen well, assassins of Jenin,” said Knesset speaker and leading Labor official Avraham Burg in his eulogy. “All our differences are not weaknesses, but differences. ... We will not surrender.”

In retaliation for the killing, the Israeli government took a series of dramatic steps. First, it reimposed a blockade on Palestinian towns and villages that had been eased two days earlier as part of a joint ceasefire. Next, it invaded six Palestinian towns and left its tanks to patrol those areas, including almost all of the town of Bethlehem. Twenty-two Palestinians, a number of them women and children, were killed over four days. Palestinian fighters resisted the invasion, injuring nine Israeli soldiers. Finally, Sharon’s government shrewdly demanded that the Palestinian Authority hand over the assassins from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who killed Zeevi.

The Palestinian leadership, aware that its people will not accept a handover, staunchly rejected the Israeli demand but outlawed the Popular Front’s military wing. “There is no chance of such an extradition—and whoever drafted the Israeli ultimatum knew this well and planned his steps accordingly,” wrote analyst Danny Rubenstein in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “In other words, this ultimatum is in fact not an ultimatum, but a declaration of war.”

Appalled by the army’s invasion, some members of the Labor Party have loudly expressed their concern. “We are very close to a brink,” says Matan Vilnai, Israel’s culture, science and sports minister. “Maybe we are going to cross it. It is the brink of a Lebanon-style operation. I hope we will be clever enough and smart enough to examine the situation and not … cross this red line.”

The evoking of Israel’s war in Lebanon, in which then Defense Minister Sharon led the Israeli army all the way to Beirut, is further indication of unease. That 1982 incursion ended in the Palestine Liberation Organization’s banishment from Beirut and the killing of more than 1,000 Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Maronite forces under Israeli army watch.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has already hinted that he felt misled in discussions of how far the Israeli army would go inside the Palestinian-controlled areas. As a result, Peres wants out of the government coalition, say some analysts. The very identity of the Labor Party could be at stake. “The Labor Party has to have its own profile,” says Open University of Israel professor Benny Noberger. “Even if it is in the government, it has to be clear that it is influencing policy. Otherwise, in the next election, it will disintegrate.”

Since the Labor Party joined the right-of-center Likud in the government, it has been plagued by infighting and disputes. The Palestinian-Israeli confrontations that broke out last September, and the widespread belief that peace with Palestinians is no longer possible, have caused a mass exodus from Israel’s left flank.

The party at the heart of Israel’s creation, the roots of the kibbutz movement and the ideology of Zionist founder Theodor Herzl himself could be reduced to a position as Israel’s fourth largest political party (behind Likud, ultra-orthodox Shas and far-left Meretz) if it does not now distinguish itself in meaningful opposition.

Slowly but prudently, Sharon has followed a policy of assassinating Palestinian activists, invading Palestinian-controlled territory and economically weakening Palestinian businesses as a way of undermining the peace process begun in Oslo in 1993, which he has always opposed. “Oslo is not continuing,” Sharon told a group of settlers at a meeting last week. “There won’t be Oslo. Oslo is over.”

This week, the prime minister pointedly defied a blunt U.S. request that he withdraw the army, telling the Knesset that “Israel is on its own.”

The few remaining on the Israeli left fear that Sharon is headed for catastrophe. In an editorial last month, journalist Amira Hass noted the dangers of a weakened opposition in the context of a distracting American war. “Skepticism that Israel may try to expel the country’s Arabs … is natural and encouraging,” she wrote. “It shows that the majority of Jewish Israelis accept as an unequivocal fact that the Palestinians are natives of this land.” Still, Hass warns, now is the time to ask, “Is Israeli society immune to an idea such as the transfer of the Palestinian population as a ‘solution’ to the protracted conflict?”

A poll taken just after Zeevi’s assassination gave credence to Hass’ concern: 66 percent of Israeli adults surveyed said they would support a “voluntary transfer” of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While one advocate of transferring Palestinians through military force is now dead, the specter of his ideas remains a living possibility.


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