A moment of hope in Israel, but Barak must commit to peace
By NEVE GORDON
Barak, Barak, Barak, Bibi, Barak, Barak, Bibi, rang the voice of the ultra-orthodox Jew as he counted the votes in the neighborhood polling station. It was around 2 a.m., and the observers from the different parties -- including myself -- were exhausted.
At least for some of us the fatigue was mixed with joy, since it was already clear that the Israeli public had sent Bibi Netanyahu packing. Others, including the man counting the votes, were deeply disappointed, still hoping that the incumbent would pull yet another rabbit out of his hat. But this time the premier was left without tricks.
Israels new leader, Ehud Barak, entered the political arena after spending most of his life in the military. As chief of staff, he had pledged to convert Israels large military apparatus into a small and smart army prepared for the 21st century. But most analysts agree that after his five-year tenure, the military was left essentially unaltered. As prime minister he will have to do better.
Before he enters office, its worth examining some of the pressing issues he needs to address. Most urgent among these is peace. During his campaign, Barak promised that within a year he will pull the Israeli troops out of Lebanon -- Israels Vietnam. Unlike Netanyahu, he acknowledges that any withdrawal from Lebanon must be linked to a peace treaty with Syria.
Perhaps this is the reason that in his election speech the Golan Heights were notably absent. Barak, so it seems, is preparing the Israeli public for the imminent surrender of the Golan to Syrian hands, a move that will pave the way for peace with both Syria and Lebanon.
While I am hopeful that Barak will reach an agreement with Israels northern neighbors, I have less confidence concerning his intentions toward Palestinians. During his election speech Barak declared that Israel will not share sovereignty over Jerusalem and will not dismantle most of the Jewish settlements built on occupied Palestinian land. Beginning his term with these two nots is, I believe, a grave mistake.
If a just and lasting peace in the Middle East is his objective, then why not share sovereignty over Jerusalem? Instead of being a site of bloody conflict, Jerusalem can become a model city in which the principles of freedom and equality inform the lives of all its residents -- Jews, Moslems, and Christians. To be sure, only a courageous leader will be able to convince the Israeli public that sharing the citys sovereignty is a worthy endeavor. And while Barak has proven his courage on the battlefield, it takes much more to be a peacemaker.
Besides ruining the peace process, Netanyahu also left Barak a divided country. Commentators repeatedly mention the rift between ultra-orthodox and secular Jews, claiming that when push comes to shove the former group does not respect Israels democratic institutions. These commentators fail to point out that so long as the nexus between religion and state served Israels nationalistic aspirations the secular population did not contest it. In fact, ever since Ben Gurion, Israels first prime minister, the states Jewish character was used by the establishment to homogenize Israels diverse immigrant population, inscribing an us vs. them mentality between Jews and Arabs.
Recently the bond between religion and state has been challenged, but not because it grants privileges to Jews at the expense of non-Jewish citizens. Rather, the secular population has realized that the states Jewish character benefits the ultra-orthodox community disproportionately. Using secular anger during his campaign, Barak declared that he will check the allocation of funds provided to the ultra-orthodox and challenge their unwillingness to participate in civic duties.
This might be a rightful undertaking, but the benefits conferred on the ultra-orthodox are not the real issue. The heart of the matter is the tension between the universalistic aspirations of a democratic state and Israels particular Jewish character. Thus, Barak needs to address the countrys Jewish identity, which at this point is held together by the connection between religion and state.
Finally, Barak must attend to the ever-growing economic disparity. If up until the 1970s Israel was one of the most egalitarian Western countries (amid its Jewish population), today the gap between the rich and the poor is among the highest in the industrialized world. Not unlike the destitute Gazans who have joined the Hamas, thousands of Israelis supported the ultra-orthodox political party Shas because it provides social services for the poor. That is, people join these movements in spite of their fanatical religious tendencies and not because of them.
Thus, alongside giving life to the peace process, Barak must begin reducing the economic gap while simultaneously appropriating Shas social services so that the government and not Shas will provide the poor with school lunches, day-care and after school activities.
A formidable task stands before Barak. Although Israel has made the impressive move of ousting Netanyahu, we have a long way before we reach the promised land.
Neve Gordon is a former Israeli paratrooper and former director of the Israeli-Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights. After completing a doctoral degree at the University of Notre Dame, Gordon is back in Jerusalem with his family.
National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999