by Eric Margolis
NEW YORK - The landslide victory by Labor Party leader Ehud Barak in last
week's elections showed just how fed up Israelis were with slippery Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the little ayatollahs of the religious far
right who supported him.
Barak's welcome victory also dramatically underlined public desire for
revival of the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians, which Netanyahu
had blocked or sabotaged over the past three years. Predictions that
normally fractious Israelis would deliver a muddle electoral message were
wrong. Israelis voters thundered they'd had enough of Netanyahu's politics
of fear, which played to the basest instincts and most extreme elements of
Netanyahu, a Bill Clinton clone, is gone. In place of the plastic
politician, a real man, Israel's most decorated soldier, Gen. Ehud Barak,
something of an old-style Labor Party leader: a deeply untelegenic,
piano-playing, highly cultured kibbutznik, as comfortable in a Vienna cafe
as in the turret of a Merkava tank.
Barak's election, and rout of Netanyahu's Likud Party, ignited hope across
the Mideast that the moribund peace process would be revived. The new
Israeli leader vowed as much, though he cautioned there would be no
compromise on sole Israeli rule over Jerusalem, no return to 1967 borders,
no major reduction of settlements, and no substantial Arab military force
on the West Bank.
Shimon Peres, former Labor Party leader, and architect of the Oslo Peace
accords, dramatically summed up the situation facing by Israel: `There
are 5 million Jews and 4 million Arabs between the Mediterranean and the
Jordan River. Our choice is either Oslo…or Kosovo.' Peres meant was that
if Israel didn't manage to conclude a fair deal with the Palestinians,
there would be more violence and a resumption of the `intifada,' leading
to calls within Israel for the mass expulsion of Palestinians into the
deserts of neighboring Jordan.
This is unlikely to happen, but one wonders how much events in Kosovo
subconsciously or consciously affected the thinking of Israeli voters.
The expulsion of 800,000 or more Albanian from their ancestral homes by
Serbs, who claimed Kosovo was given to them by God and was their holy
ground, bears some similarities to events in Palestine during 1947-1949.
About 750,000 Palestinians, mostly framers and villagers, were expelled
from their homes by Jewish regular and irregular forces, and driven to
flight. Israeli extremist groups staged a few, selective massacres to
incite fear and accelerate the exodus. Claims that Palestinians fled on
orders of Arab governments were simply propaganda designed to mask Israeli
ethnic cleansing, as the late Israeli historian, Simcha Flapan,
demonstrated in his authoritative book, `The Birth of Israel.'
Five Arab states sent modest forces to stop expulsion of the Palestinians
and, if possible, defeat the new Israeli state, or at least force it back
to the original borders mandated by the UN. But the Arab `armies' proved
even more inept and ineffective than the NATO coalition has in Kosovo,
devoting more effort to bickering and intriguing among themselves than
fighting Israelis. Israel emerged triumphant; the uprooted Palestinians
became permanent refugees who roil the Mideast to this day.
Jews were fleeing Nazi oppression in the 1940's. Their struggle for a
homeland cannot in any way be compared to the current sadistic atrocities
being committed in Kosovo by Serb ethnic fascists. But the result was
similar: an entire people displaced and left to rot in camps. Watching
Kosovo, many Israelis must have uncomfortably recalled the dark secret
that still haunts their nation's creation, and may have gained better
understanding of the simmering r-age and anguish felt by the ever-homeless
Tellingly, Israel's govenrment and individual Israelis rushed to aid the
pitiful Kosovar refugees. It was not just the terrifying deja vu of Jews
being herded off to Nazi death camps. One senses some Israelis were also
trying to make up for the wrongs of their own past by aiding the
Palestinians of the Balkans. However, some Israeli rightists applauded
Serb ethnic cleansing as a model for action on the West Bank.
While many Israelis opened their heart to the Kosovars, and Jewish groups
across the United States demanded the weak-kneed Clinton take effective
military action to stop Serb crimes, the Muslim world, ever ready to
denounce Israel for persecuting fellow Muslims, sat back and did
absolutely nothing to help the persecuted, mostly-Muslim Kosovars. Iran,
self-proclaimed defender of Islam, even protested to NATO over slight
damage to its Belgrade Embassy. The rest of the Muslim World carried on
business as usual with Serbia.
The horror of Kosovo, and Shimon Peres's warning, should encourage Barak's
new government and PLO to resume serious movement towards a final peace.
Syria has openly signaled it is ready to talk to Barak, and let Israel out
of the bloody quagmire in southern Lebanon. The Israeli public is ready,
so are most of the Arabs - and even Iran's new, moderate, ayatollah- lite
government. The alternative: escalation of Mideast nuclear, chemical,
biowarfare arms race.
Politicians start most wars; soldiers end them. Gen. Barak now has a
golden moment to seize the diplomatic initiative and become an Israeli
DeGaulle by having the courage to press his people into the worrisome,
distasteful, but absolutely essential, acceptance of a viable Palestinian
state. Pray this window of opportunity is not slammed shut by the Arab or
Jewish extremists who want to create another Kosovo.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and
broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]
Copyright © 1999 Eric Margolis - All Rights