American Jews need to hear ‘from people like me’

By David Horovitz July 22, 2005

Communications Minister Dalia Itzik heads to the US and Canada to articulate disengagement from the standpoint of someone who, as she puts it, is ‘not a natural in this government’

There’s one standard picture of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the wall of Dalia Itzik’s office in the Communications Ministry, and two framed snaps of her meeting recently with the pope.

The choices are telling. Her respect for the current and, especially, the previous head of the Catholic Church comes through two or three times in a lengthy conversation with The Jerusalem Post. John Paul II was ‘one brave man who dared to challenge everything his predecessors said and did,’ she notes at one point. And while she says nothing especially caustic about Sharon, and could not be more firm in her endorsement of the withdrawal from Gaza, she does acknowledge right away that ‘I’m not a natural in this government.’

Early next week, precisely because she and her Likud cabinet colleagues/rivals don’t always articulate Israeli policies and thinking in quite the same terms, Itzik is heading out to the US and Canada. Part of her visit relates to the work of her ministry.

But part, too, has been scheduled so that she can meet with Diaspora Jews and offer context and evaluation ahead of what she predicts will be ‘the hottest August Israel has even known – a test for our society, our democracy, our nerves…

‘It is important to me,’ she says, ‘that American Jews know the information also from people like me.’

‘People like me’?

‘Someone like me, who comes from the Left,’ she says.

And what kind of information does she feel it important to convey?

‘There is a feeling that we are going to see some very difficult scenes [during the pullout],’ she explains, and there might be a sense abroad ‘that all of Israel is like this [resisting withdrawal], or all the settlers are like this. And that’s not the case.’ While a small fraction are not prepared to accept the law, the majority of settlers ‘do accept that this is going to happen, even though it is very, very hard for them. You see people who have been there two or three generations…

‘So this test obligates even someone like me who comes from the Left to show our sympathy and empathy. All Israeli governments, after all, sent these people there and now there is a democratic decision that is binding [to bring them out].’

Though gracious and good-natured throughout the conversation, Itzik’s comments on disengagement are sometimes laced with a bitter undertone – the tone of a politician who feels that she and her party are being vindicated by the decision to leave the Strip, but who says she shudders to think how the same Likud leaders now championing the pullout would be behaving were it Labor that was leading the process.

‘Just imagine how things would be, what [Education Minister] Limor Livnat would be saying, if we were in power. And where Sharon himself would be if we were doing this,’ she muses angrily. ‘Sometimes I almost choke when I remember how things were [in the Rabin years].’

But she reserves plenty of grim criticism, too, for her own party, cursed by a ridiculous number of would-be leaders whose preoccupation with internal rivalries continues to prevent its rehabilitation.

Sharon, she says with reluctant admiration, has ‘taken the agenda away from us. He’s taken the center, and the Labor Party, in its stupidity, didn’t know how to capture the center. Instead of talking to the Israeli public, Labor is obsessed with internal arguments.

‘We should have said we tried to make peace and we were disappointed, but we didn’t say that. On the eve of the last general election we said we’d carry on from where [Ehud] Barak had left off,’ she scoffs, accepting, she indicates, what the party’s then-leader Amram Mitzna did not – that Yasser Arafat was not a peace partner.

‘The Labor Party knows what to do [for Israel],’ she goes on. ‘Its mistakes are in the ‘how’ – how it sells itself, the terms it uses, the fact that its rhetoric is seen as pro-Palestinian when in fact it is of course very pro-Israeli. I am convinced that what we advocate is good for Israel. I didn’t grow up in a household that thought like this. Reality taught it to me and I believe it to the depth of my soul.’

What Itzik advocates is that Israel do what it can to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas in the hope of reaching a lasting accommodation with him on the fate of the West Bank. And that, if this proves impossible, it be prepared for a further, large-scale unilateral withdrawal.

‘For me, the issue is primarily that I want to be in a Jewish state,’ she says. ‘Most citizens of Israel understand this. It’s not that they want to give a prize to the Palestinians, because they really don’t deserve one. I don’t remember despicable terrorism on the level that we’ve suffered in the last few years. My thinking is guided by what is good for Israel.’

Gaza, she says, has been an issue ‘since we captured it. And when we captured it, there were 200,000 Palestinians there. Now there are 1.2 million… It’s an economic and demographic liability. We have to get out’

As for the West Bank, ‘whatever is good for Israel’s security interests should stay with her. Whatever isn’t good, whatever is a liability, must be returned.’

Sooner or later, she goes on, the Palestinians will have to ‘take responsibility for themselves. I don’t want to have to provide for them, to have them economically dependent on me. I want us to define what is important for us from a security point of view and fight for that at any price.

‘The overwhelming majority of us want a state with a Jewish majority,’ she reiterates. ‘That’s why we oppose the right of return. But we can’t throw the Palestinians out. So there is no alternative but to relinquish parts of the territories – some of which, let’s be honest, are a terrible liability.’

An early advocate of the security barrier, she reserves her most stinging criticism of Sharon for his failure to build it earlier.

As minister of industry trade in the previous government, she says she felt acutely at the height of the terrorist onslaught that ‘everything was terrible – terrible loss, terrible despair, businesses closing, hospitals dealing with the dead and wounded. And I thought it was unacceptable that the state would say ‘There is no solution…’ One of the greatest mistakes of that government was that it didn’t build the separation fence. I was the lone voice… It’s just a terrible shame that Sharon decided to build it only after 400 or 500 people were killed.’

But while politicians to the Right express horror at the notion of that barrier – currently routed to encompass some 7 percent of Judea and Samaria – becoming Israel’s permanent border, excluding the overwhelming majority of settlements, Itzik indicates that, for her, the barrier has no political significance. ‘The fence is a security barrier,’ she says. ‘One day, when the Palestinians decide to talk, there will be room for negotiations.’

One day? Does she think that day will come under Abbas’s chairmanship of the PA?

She begins by cautioning that, ‘unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t think that after disengagement there will be utopia and the Palestinians will start to love us. I think it will be very difficult. There will be Palestinians who will say ‘we pushed the settlers out of Gaza, and now we have to push them somewhere else…’

‘I saw one of the Palestinian mothers, after her son had carried out a suicide bombing, saying that she hoped that her other sons would follow in his footsteps. Dear God, I thought, how deep is the hatred rooted in that woman. Facing something like that, we have to act not only from the gut, but from the brain…

‘If there is a way to reach an understanding with Abu Mazen, we’ll reach an understanding on the rest of the territories. And if there is no understanding, we will need to prepare for the worst. There may be very serious terrorism, so Israel must complete the fence.’

She goes on to say, sorrowfully, that ‘lately Abu Mazen has fallen in love with the idea that he’s weak. I don’t think this will help him in the long term. The fact is Abu Mazen is there and he needs to make law and order, just as Ben-Gurion did here. It wan’t easy. Ben-Gurion had opposition. But he was Ben-Gurion.’

But then she stresses that ‘it’s premature to draw conclusions. I think that the equation that a strong Abu Mazen is good for Israel is a correct equation.’ And Israel, she says, could and can do more to strengthen him. ‘For example, the head of the Shin Bet said that we are not arresting some of the terrorists because there is not enough room in Israeli jails.’ That, for Itzik, indicates that some of those who are in jail could go free.

Then there are things ‘on the ground… to ease the economic situation. There is horrendous poverty there. World Jewry can help. [Canadian-Jewish billionaire] Gerry Schwartz was just in Israel from Canada. He told me he would have been willing to do amazing projects involving Palestinians and Israelis, to try and bring medication to children, provide treatments for children. There are many good Jews who are willing to take upon themselves these kinds of projects.’

Sounding precisely like Sharon, she notes, however, that ‘the first test is to stop terror. This is what I have told Abu Mazen all along… It would be absurd for us to initiate a series of actions [to ease conditions for the Palestinians] and in return get terror.’

Still, she credits Abbas for the relative decrease in terrorism of late, saying ‘I don’t know many Palestinian leaders that went to Gaza and said: ‘If you don’t stop terror, I will.’ He went into the heart of terror.’ She praises him for declaring that terror ‘only brings us disaster.’ And she notes that ‘his position in Palestinian society is difficult. It’s harder for him than it would have been for Arafat.’

Time will tell, she concludes, whether Abu Mazen can indeed control Hamas. ‘It’s a matter of approach. Some people believe that an approach that is welcoming and embracing will bear fruit. This is a legitimate debate about approaches, but it mustn’t carry on for very long. It might very well be that his approach will be understood as a weakness and that might eventually backfire… But I do believe him that he wishes to bring an end to the conflict,’ she says finally. ‘And I can’t say that I said the same of Arafat.’

DURING THE interview, which coincides with the height of the stand-off at Kfar Maimon, Itzik rejects the notion that the withdrawal will trigger apocalyptic scenes of internal Jewish confrontation. In fact, she believes that the ongoing trauma stemming from the Rabin assassination a decade ago might ultimately provide a sobering effect. ‘People are sensing a similarity to what went on here during the pre-Rabin assassination era.’ But Israel is still ‘so horrified by what happened that perhaps this will be a lesson that we could learn from.’

Asked about the strains that the pullout is placing on religious Zionism and its leaders, she invokes the example of John Paul II in using his spiritual influence to foster understanding and tolerance. Many Islamic leaders are failing this test, she says. And some Jewish religious leaders, too.

Itzik went to Orthodox schools, and has a ‘tremendous respect’ for Orthodoxy, she says. ‘I am not one of those people who have left religion and now wish to spite it. However, I am very angry at some [rabbis].

‘I gave my blessings to the [National Religious Party's leader] Zevulun Orlev. I am aware of the huge battle he is facing. His challenge is to return the religious sector, which is wonderful, to its commitment of being a bridge between secular and religious. Somehow this bridge went so far off to the right. It didn’t use to be this way. The joke was always that one could not form a coalition without the NRP. Something happened to that important and blessed movement.

‘I believe that the spiritual leadership can do much more [to foster tolerance and moderation]. God forbid the day that something terrible will happen and that leadership will be sitting in the defendant’s chair. When I say something or you say something it has a very different weight than if a rabbi says something.’

As for the dilemmas facing the hesder yeshivot and their soldiers, she says they are ‘managing to face up to some very difficult challenges… The political decision makers are the ones who instruct the army… I was always against refusal, whether from Left or from Right.’

TURNING TO her home turf, Israeli party politics, Itzik sketches three scenarios for a post-pullout realignment.

Possibility 1 is that Sharon moves to the Right, reasserts his standing in the Likud and runs again for the prime ministership. Possibility 2 is that Binyamin Netanyahu ousts Sharon as Likud leader. And that, she says, could lead to possibility 3, in which Sharon bolts the Likud and establishes a new centrist alliance.

With the appropriate caveats about the unpredictability of Israeli politics, her bet, she says, is on the first of these scenarios. While Sharon’s initial intention with disengagement was to also dismantle 16 settlements in the West Bank, she says, he will likely declare, in the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four settlements in northern Samaria, that no more settlements are to be evacuated.

‘Sharon will change his rhetoric 180 degrees. He will speak to the Right, he’ll head Right… he will want to bring home the hard-liners. He will want to recapture the Likud.’

For Labor in the next elections, Itzik adds, Sharon would be a very tough opponent – ‘the hardest political rival for us’ – because of his astute capture of the center and Labor’s incompetence.

Still, she takes some comfort from the fact that, if Sharon is the Likud’s prime ministerial candidate next time, this might help Shimon Peres on the age issue. ‘Let’s put this gently,’ she suggests. ‘It would be a little absurd if a man of 78 or 79 [Sharon] were to attack somebody of 81 or 82 [Peres].’

Hence, she says, so long as Sharon is leading the Likud, Labor need not urgently elect a new leader. And, yes, she insists, Peres can ‘absolutely’ yet be elected prime minister. Because Labor’s big advantage, if it can only learn how to effectively put its case, is that it has always told the public the truth about the territories, she says.

‘Settlers come to me today… mothers with tears in their eyes and with little children… It’s very hard. But I say to them, ‘We always told you the truth.’… I say to them, ‘You preferred to be misled.’… And sometimes they say, ‘You know what? You’re right. You didn’t try to trick us.”

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