A Collection of the Week's News from Israel

A service of the Bet El Twinning Committee
of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation

26 Tevet 5759    January 15, 1999    Issue number 200


Accusations Fly Over Washington Break-in

Labor MKs are accusing Prime Minister Netanyahu and his office for responsibility for the break-in of the offices of Stanley Greenberg in Washington this week. Greenberg is Labor leader Ehud Barak's election advisor. Both the FBI and the Washington police department are investigating the burglary. Barak's campaign manager says that computer disks with information relating to the campaign and to Barak's bank accounts were stolen. The Washington police announced that the burglars also took material connected with other election campaigns for which Greenberg serves as an advisor. No suspects have been yet arrested. Barak's press aide, Aliza Goren, called upon Labor MKs not to hastily point accusing fingers. She was referring to statements Wednesday by Labor MKs Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Ori Orr, and others against Prime Minister Netanyahu. Ben Eliezer said, "Only Netanyahu and his office have an interest in breaking in to Greenberg's office." Ori Orr said, "It is a sad day when we see to what extent people will go simply to remain in power." Likud MK Doron Shmueli said that Labor will again have to apologize to Netanyahu for the severe accusations it is making. (Arutz 7 Jan 13)

Sharon: Heavy Weapons Smuggled in by PA

The Palestinian Authority has smuggled anti-aircraft missiles and dozens of grenade launchers into the autonomous areas. So stated Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon at a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting Tuesday. Sharon also revealed that within the past year, many officers in the PA paramilitary police married young Arab women who hold Israeli citizenship, and subsequently moved to Arab villages within the borders of pre-1967 Israel. (Arutz 7 Jan 13)

Begin on CNN

Prime Ministerial candidate Benny Begin appeared on CNN television Tuesday night, answering questions phoned in or e-mailed from around the world, as well as from Israelis whose questions were video-taped in advance on Jerusalem streets. Begin remarked several times during the program that the "land-for-peace" model is unrealistic and detached from Middle-Eastern reality: "Arafat and company will never settle for less than the whole cake," he observed. "We are on a collision course... As it stands now, there is bound to be a violent clash with the Palestinians within the next few years." One caller from the United Arab Emirates said that all the Prime-Ministerial candidates are "running after the extremists," and asked, "Does this mean that we are going to receive another government opposed to peace?" Begin answered: "The fault does not lie with Israel. The fault lies with those Arabs that have not yet come to terms with the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Just take a look at the Fatah website. Fatah is considered to be a 'moderate' branch of the PLO, and is headed by Arafat himself. Yet on its site, Fatah calls for an ongoing armed struggle against what it calls 'the Zionist entity'... I think that we should take their intentions very seriously." One Jerusalemite asked why he continues to think so rigidly, refusing to accept the new political reality. Begin responded: "Those who advocate territory for peace don't seem to learn from their experience. *They* are the ones clinging to a dogmatic approach that doesn't take the events of the past five years into consideration."

A man named Amir from Lebanon asked Begin why he continues to refer to "Judea and Samaria" when the whole world refers to the area as the "West Bank." Begin, a geologist, replied: "I come from a scientific background, and I use scientific terms. Samaria, Judea, the Galilee, Gaza and the Negev are the correct geographic terms that should be used. The 'West Bank' is now a meaningless term that originated during the time that the Hashemite Kingdom [Jordan, on the east bank of the Jordan River] was in control of Samaria and Judea. And of course these areas are part and parcel of the heart and the cradle of the history of the Jewish people. They belong by right to the Jewish people. I think we have seen over the past five years that when an attempt is made to sever the intimate bonds between our right to the land and our right to security, then the result is violence and bloodshed." The last question was from a man named Fuad Sahd, who asked, "Is it fair to say that Mr. Netanyahu exposed Israel to unprecedented criticism from its most precious ally, the U.S.?" Begin answered, "I never criticize any Israeli government either while I am abroad or when I am speaking English, and I will not do so now." (Arutz 7 Jan 13)

Barak Backs Down from Signing Pollard Letter

Ehud Barak has so far refrained from signing a letter that he and Prime Minister Netanyahu were to have jointly sent to U.S. President Clinton, asking for the release of Jonathan Pollard. Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein, who initiated the letter, expressed strong disappointment: "I am very disappointed that the opposition leader is refusing, meanwhile, to sign the letter... I think it would have helped raise a humanitarian issue, totally unrelated to the upcoming elections, on which there is a wide consensus. I hereby call upon the leader of the Labor party to change his position and to affix his signature, and to show that he is not abandoning a soldier in the battlefield. All the rumors that certain figures, such as Mr. Barak, are making efforts 'behind the scenes' to help release Pollard are nothing but 'blanks'. These may be nice platitudes to feed the media, but I haven't seen any value in such comments in the last 14 years." (Arutz 7 Jan 13)

Solution Proposed for Arutz 7

The ministerial committee appointed to regulate special-interest radio stations, including Arutz 7, met for the first time in three months Monday and decided to draft an amendment to the law governing the Channel Two radio and television broadcasting authority. The proposal calls for designating national, special-interest radio stations by tender. The bill will be based on a proposal by the committee's chairman, Education Minister Yitzhak Levy, and is expected to be presented to the government for approval within a month. The stations would be commercial ventures, funded through advertisements. In addition to Education Minister Levy, the ministerial committee includes Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Labor Minister Eliyahu Suissa, and representatives of Communications Minister Limor Livnat and Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein. Suissa asked that two radio stations be allocated for the Haredi sector. The bill will be formulated by the legal advisors of the various ministries. The ministers hope to bring the bill to a vote before the 14th Knesset disbands in May. (Ha'aretz Jan 12)

Election News

MK Haggai Merom announced Tuesday that he is leaving the Labor party to join Amnon Lipkin-Shachak's new "centrist" party. Merom sharply criticized the Labor party and its leader, Ehud Barak. He said that Labor party members are like "mice following the Pied Piper into the sea." He said that other prominent members of Labor will soon join the new party.

The National Religious Party has finalized its party platform for the May elections. Among other points, the platform negates the Wye Agreement, opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, and supports the expansion of the Yesha settlement enterprise. The platform does not rule out the possibility that the NRP will join a Labor-led coalition in the event that Ehud Barak wins the Prime Ministerial race. (Arutz 7 Jan 12)

MK Benny Begin, running to the right of Binyamin Netanyahu for Prime Minister, told Arutz-7 Sunday that a government headed by him would not transfer territories to Yasser Arafat "under any circumstances." Begin expressed concern and sadness over the "weakness and apathy that has overtaken many members of the national camp, who are willing to continue to support a candidate [Netanyahu] who has said openly that he plans to withdraw from further territories in Judea and Samaria." Begin added, "There are many people who say that they would love to vote for me but are afraid that I won't win. If all those who believe in my position would vote for me, then that which they fear won't happen." He also said that he does not foresee a scenario wherein his candidacy would cause Barak and Shachak to run against each other in the run-off election.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu noted at Sunday's Cabinet meeting that Egypt is pressuring Arafat not to declare a state on May 4. The Prime Minister said that Egypt's interest in this matter is to cause the current government not to return to power, "and it is important for the Israeli public to know this." (Arutz 7 Jan 10)

Netanyahu Buoyed by Polls

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has succeeded in closing last week's 10% gap between himself and Ehud Barak. According to a Gallup poll publicized Monday, a two-way contest, if held today, would result in both leaders gaining 45% of the vote. Arutz-7 correspondent Chizki Zisman reports that Netanyahu's election campaign has experienced a new burst of energy in the past day, and that Netanyahu consented to interviews today after two weeks of near silence. The poll also found that Benny Begin would capture 10% of the first-round ballot. (Arutz 7 Jan 12)

Arens Joins the Likud Fray

Moshe Arens declared his candidacy for the leadership of the Likud party Monday, against Binyamin Netanyahu and Uzi Landau. He said that he respects both of the two, but he feels that he is the only one who can lead the Likud to victory in the national election. Arens said that he was against the Oslo, Hevron, and Wye agreements, and that even though the government must fulfill its contracts, "there is much room for negotiation on the implementation of these agreements." He called upon Yitzchak Mordechai and Limor Livnat to remain in the party - which will apparently occur - and upon Benny Begin and Dan Meridor to return to the party. Preliminary polls give Arens 26% support in the Likud, as opposed to 6% for Uzi Landau. Minister Michael Eitan attacked Arens today for abandoning the party after it loss in the 1992 elections, instead of helping to rebuild it. Arens was against the withdrawal from Sinai in 1982 and the accompanying uprooting of settlements there. He later said, however, that he is not a believer in the "Greater Land of Israel," and was not against the withdrawal from Gaza. Arens was Foreign Minister during the second national unity government of 1988, and served as Defense Minister twice: in 1983-84, and 1990-92. His response to the intifada was criticized in Yesha (Judea and Samaria) circles as not being firm enough, and he objected to the establishment of the new community of Rechelim. Arens told Arutz-7 three months ago, "The Hevron agreement was definitely a mistake. Instead of being a milestone on the road to peace, it has become a millstone around the neck of the peace process. The lives of the Jewish residents there are endangered every week, if not every day." However, he said at the same time, "I am not against a withdrawal from densely-populated Arab areas that will sooner or later come under Palestinian control." (Arutz 7 Jan 11)

Peres Calls for Palestinian State

Shimon Peres received a rousing wave of applause Monday from the Palestinian Legislative Council when he announced that he is in favor of a Palestinian state. Peres was accompanied to today's session in Ramallah by international guests of the Peres Center for Peace, such as Michael Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger, and others. Gorbachev also addressed the 88-member Council - of which only 40 showed up - as did Yasser Arafat. Benny Begin, reacting to Peres' remarks today, said that they simply show what were his true intentions when he initiated the Oslo process over five years ago. (Arutz 7 Jan 11)

Curfew Removed from Hevron

The army removed the closure and curfew from Hevron at 4 AM Monday morning. The measures were imposed last week after the terrorist shooting attack that injured two women. The terrorists escaped to the Palestinian-controlled section of Hevron, and have not been apprehended by the Palestinian police. A Jewish motorist was injured Monday afternoon when Arabs threw rocks at his car from the Jelazun refugee camp, near Beit El. (Arutz 7 Jan 11)

Likud Begins Campaign

The Likud officially opened its election campaign last Thursday, with a press conference by Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and Danny Naveh at Beit Sokolov in Tel Aviv. They strongly attacked Labor leader Ehud Barak, and basically ignored Amnon Lipkin-Shachak. Hanegbi said that the Likud will show the "tremendous differences between the positions of the Likud and Labor" during the campaign. Naveh read off the telephone number of Yasser Arafat, and called upon Barak to phone Arafat and say, "Don't worry, if I win, everything will be OK." They quoted previous Barak statements to the effect that he can't come out openly with his dovish views because he wants to be elected, and that if he were a young Palestinian now, he would join a terrorist organization. (Arutz 7 Jan 7)

Shachak: The Day After

Amnon Lipkin-Shachak, speaking on television last Wednesday night after calling Prime Minister Netanyahu "dangerous to the public" earlier in the day, did not rule out cooperation with Netanyahu after the election, "so long as there is room for decent cooperation." Shachak also said that he would consider joining a Netanyahu-led coalition in the event that Netanyahu were to win the election. Shachak's debut last Wednesday - his official entry into the Prime Ministerial race, sections of which were rebroadcast numerous times throughout the day on radio and television - apparently did not help him. A Gallup poll last night showed that 34% of the public now support him less than they did before, and 54% said they were not convinced by his presentation. Hundreds of phone calls were received at Likud headquarters expressing objections to Shachak's "Netanyahu is dangerous" remarks, even from those who are not Likud members. Shachak implied that he would evacuate Yesha communities, and mentioned specifically the north-Shomron towns of Kadim and Sanur. (Arutz 7 Jan 7)

Two Associations in Har Homa

Four independent contractors and two residents' associations will be building a total of 679 units in the newest Jerusalem neighborhood, Har Homa. Actual construction is scheduled to begin in three months. Avi Wechsler, Director-General of the Israel Lands Authority, said that in light of the success and the high demand in the current tender, a tender for another 346 units was issued last week. (Arutz 7 Jan 7)

Americans Don't Accept Reciprocity Concept

Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. Zalman Shoval wrote a commentary in The Washington Times last Wednesday, explaining that the Palestinians had gone back to what he called "business as usual," and were not living up to their obligations. State Department spokesman James Rubin, reacting to the article, said, "We do not share Ambassador Shoval's assessment at all. The Palestinians have, in fact, worked hard to implement many of their commitments under the Wye agreement, including annulling clauses in the Palestinian National Council Charter, and stepping up the fight against terror. There are some commitments that still have to be fulfilled; but in our view, overall, they are making progress here. Let me point out that it is the Israelis that have not fulfilled any of their Phase 2 obligations by failing to pull back further re-deployment, as required by Phase 2." In contrast, a Foreign Ministry report showed that the Palestinians have in fact not collected illegal weapons, have not taken any action against incitement in the press and in schools, and have not agreed to convene certain committees, among other violations. Regarding security measures, the report said that the Palestinians have not outlawed military, terrorist or violent organizations, have failed to comply with their security work plan and to engage in full bilateral security cooperation as required. The report also noted "with concern" the continuation of the revolving-door policy whereby security offenders are subjected to token arrest and almost immediately released. Israel's policy is explained in the report: "Most of the [Palestinian] obligations... are still awaiting implementation. The Government of Israel has reiterated its commitment to the Wye Memorandum in all its aspects... Israel will continue to negotiate all outstanding issues and implement its obligations on the basis of reciprocity." Germany's Foreign Minister Fischer said yesterday that a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state would not be acceptable. Germany will hold the rotating presidency of the European Union for the next six months. (Arutz 7 Jan 7)


A Choice, Not an Echo By Yossi Ben-Aharon

The original concept of autonomy was designed to provide the Palestinians with maximum political self-expression, short of statehood. Except for a small minority, all the political parties in Israel agreed that an independent Palestinian state was too much of a risk and a danger.

Contrary to this undertaking, however, the Rabin-Peres government deliberately set in motion a process that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River. By the time the Peres government was removed from office, it had become abundantly clear that we had been saddled with a hostile entity, governed by a terror-prone leadership, that was serving as a safe haven for terrorists.

Binyamin Netanyahu was elected against this background. Most people did not expect him to renounce the Oslo Agreements outright and trigger a full-dress confrontation with the PLO. We did, however, expect him to undertake a thorough review of the Oslo process and steer it toward a healthier track. This would have entailed, first and foremost, applying a brake to the slide toward a PLO-terrorist state. In addition, he was expected to serve notice to Yasser Arafat, right from the outset, that he must choose between living up to every undertaking in the agreements and a total suspension of the Oslo process. Netanyahu would have thus unmasked the total bankruptcy of the previous government's policy of "promoting the peace process as if there is no terrorism and fighting terrorism as if there is no peace process." We were all sick and tired of Hamas terror attacks, coupled with PLO prevarication, double-dealing, and deception. A firm, principled, and consistent Israeli posture would have elicited popular support here and understanding in the US.

Instead, Netanyahu adopted a policy of across-the-board equivocation. He would initiate contacts with the Palestinian Authority, intimate that progress was being made in the Oslo process, then turn around and publicly castigate the PA for violating the agreements. Similarly, one day he would declare wholehearted support for the inhabitants of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, and the next day it would transpire that the government refused to permit bringing in even one caravan to a settlement. He would trumpet eternal dedication to united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and at the same time prevent any building in Har Homa or Ras al-Amud.

The final blow was the Wye Plantation agreement. Contrary to the Netanyahu's protestations, that agreement has not rectified any of the disastrous blunders in the Oslo Accords. If anything, it only compounded the grave situation which those accords had created. It enabled, by such measures as an airport at Dahaniye, the resumption of the trend toward Palestinian statehood. It did not check the tide of Hamas terror attacks which were countenanced, if not encouraged, by the Palestinian Authority.

The argument that if we reject Netanyahu, we will be saddled with Ehud Barak does not hold water. The Israeli Left has been steadily losing the last vestiges of ideology and credibility. Since the demise of socialism, the Labor Party has been groping for a substitute without much success.

It adopted the motto of peace with the Palestinians with gusto and fanfare, but that crusade turned sour because the PLO's concept of peace turned out to be a sham. It then chose Barak as its leader, hoping that following in the footsteps of Yitzhak Rabin, also a former chief of General Staff, would guarantee success for the party.

But that move turned out to be another blunder. Barak is an inexperienced novice in the complex political arena. He is, to a large extent, a prisoner of the Rabin-Peres ephemeral achievements in peace.

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak is another candidate who mistakenly believes that being a former general is a sure guarantee of success in politics. He is trying hard to sell a centrist image. But once he and his competitors begin disclosing each other's past, Shahak' s central role in creating and promoting the Oslo process will place him squarely in the Rabin-Peres-Barak camp.

We cannot afford a leadership that is tied, ideologically or politically, to the Oslo process. We have paid too high a price for governments that gambled with the country's security and future. We desperately need a new and courageous leadership that is not beholden to the disastrous policies of the past and is capable of adopting a course toward a secure and stable future for our state and people. (Jerusalem Post Jan 8)

The writer is a former director-general of the Prime Minister's Office.

Army Reserve Duty By Zvi Newman

I just finished my 24 days of annual army reserve duty. My newly-assigned permanent reservist job is to drive an armored jeep during routine patrols and emergency responses in Gush Ezion, which is the area immediately south of Jerusalem. It's over the green line, so it's a smorgasbord of Areas A, B and C (A-full PLO civil and security control, B-PLO civil and Israeli security control, C-full Israeli control, often bordering each other in very close quarters). The idea is to keep the quiet and routine intact for the area's residents and anybody travelling through. Arabs like to disrupt the quiet by throwing stones and molotov cocktails, firing shots at civilian and army vehicles, homes and checkpoints in Jewish settlements, planting car and roadside bombs, infiltrating to steal or worse, etc. etc. etc. Gush Ezion is a relatively quiet area, but things do happen. I was stationed this time at a small installation near Betar Elite, along the road network connecting Bet Shemesh, Emeq HaEla, Jerusalem, Efrat and Hevron. This was good for time off, as it's only 20 minutes from home. I drove 8-16 hours a day in a very heavy and clumsy stone, bullet and light blast-proof Jeep Storm. I shared the vehicle with a jeep commander and 2 fighters from the standing army (a rotating group of 19-22 year olds with full infantry training and experience from the Gaza Strip and elsewhere). The jeep was equipped with an arsenal of crowd dispersal tools (tear gas, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, standard ammunition).

Here are the highlights and lowlights (it's hard to decide which some of these are!):

Anyway, it was a pleasure working with these guys, even though my job is just to drive and guard the jeep whenever the response force unloads. Sure beats guard duty at an administrative base!

I saw up close some of the problem areas created by Oslo and the hopefully dead-in-its-diapers Wye agreement. Due to the complexity of the terrain and idiotic borders, we should all start crying now for the safety of our soldiers and civilians once the Arabs decide to uncork their passions. Without a '67-like miracle, it's not going to be pretty.

A Legitimate Opinion By Evelyn Gordon

To deny Avigdor Lieberman his say is undemocratic. What's more, he may bear listening to.

When it comes to the Supreme Court, public debate in Israel - if it can be dignified with that name - is depressingly monotonous. As soon as one person decries the court's growing power, someone else promptly demands that the speaker be deprived of some basic civil right.

This time, it was Avigdor Lieberman who began the ritual. At a press conference to announce the launching of his new party last week, Lieberman assailed numerous political and social institutions, of which the court was one. The elected government has become a marginal factor in running the state, he declared. The state is run by four institutions, far stronger than the government, which operate without coordinating with it and even impose their opinions on it: the High Court of Justice, the State Attorney's Office, the [Treasury's] budget division and the police investigations division. In the name of professional independence, Lieberman said, an administrative tyranny has developed. The High Court is more powerful today than the government, and the president of the Supreme Court has more clout than the prime minister. But, unlike the prime minister, no one elected him.

The reaction was not long in coming. For a change, no one demanded that Lieberman be indicted. But the very next day, Labor MK Rafi Elul asked the Central Elections Committee to disqualify Lieberman's party, on the grounds that his statements about the judicial system imply a yearning for a dark and totalitarian regime in which the rule of law plays a very limited role. These statements, Elul's petition continued, undermine the democratic nature of the regime and the fundamental principles on which Israel is based, and endanger Israeli society.

One does not have to like Lieberman to find Elul's reaction appalling. After all, the right to run in an election is one of the most fundamental democratic rights, and is therefore not to be lightly taken away.

Lieberman's remarks might be somewhat hyperbolic - the elected government, for instance, is still far more than a marginal player in national affairs - but they are hardly incendiary. Indeed, much of what he says is true: The High Court, for instance, undeniably does have the ability to impose its will on the government; it is also an unarguable fact that its president is not elected. The only question is whether one perceives these facts as positive or negative. Many people - Elul obviously among them - consider this situation positive. And this is certainly a legitimate opinion. What is illegitimate is accusing anyone who holds the opposite view of trying to undermine democracy. Because Lieberman's opinion is equally legitimate. A court capable of overruling the government is not a sine qua non of democracy.

A decade ago, Israel's High Court did not believe it had the power to overturn an act of parliament. Does this mean that for its first 40 years of existence, Israel was not a democracy?

The question of how much power the Supreme Court should have is an issue on which legal scholars disagree. No less a person than former Supreme Court president Moshe Landau has been one of the country's leading campaigners against the court's assertion of its right to overturn duly enacted laws. Landau has repeatedly argued that for such a right to be valid, it must be explicitly delegated to the court by a significant Knesset majority. The two Basic Laws enacted in 1992, on which the current court bases its alleged right, meet neither of these criteria: They do not even mention judicial review, and they were passed with most of the Knesset not even in attendance, by votes of 32-21 and 23-0.

The question of where exactly to strike the balance between the powers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches is a fundamental one for any democracy and every democracy has found its own answer to this question. In fact, most democracies have given their Supreme Courts much less power than Israel's court now has. Even in the US, where the Supreme Court's right to overturn legislation is unquestioned the court intervenes on only a handful of issues each year. In contrast, there is virtually no major or minor governmental issue that does not come before Israel's High Court, from the legality of the Oslo Accords to who has the right to serve as a minister to whether yeshiva students should be allowed to defer their army service.

But wherever one believes the balance among the three branches of government should be struck, it is certainly a legitimate issue for an election campaign. If most voters agree with Elul that Lieberman is dangerous to democracy, then there is nothing to fear from letting him run: He will probably not get enough votes to pass the electoral threshold.

But if his words do strike a chord with voters, then perhaps the system has more wrong with it than the mere presence of a disgruntled ex-public official. And the country would be better served if our leaders attempted to seriously address the issues Lieberman has raised, rather than merely silencing the messenger. (Jerusalem Post Jan 12

Shahak Is No Centrist By David Weinberg

So far, his candidacy looks like a kinder, gentler mask for a Labor/Meretz agenda.

I'm sorry to burst Amnon Lipkin-Shahak's balloon so early in the campaign, but you can't run for prime minister as a "centrist" when you're not. Don't get me wrong. Shahak is charming, appears to be level-headed, speaks of consensus and reconciliation, and has an impressive military career behind him. He radiates strength, and is untainted by previous political party affiliation. But those aren't sufficient credentials to claim the centrist high ground. Aside from his ability to draw discontents and other politicians from both Labor and the Likud seeking to catapult their careers forward, just what makes Shahak a centrist?

Take Shahak's political platform, as expressed in interviews over recent days. He supports Oslo, pretty much unconditionally; indeed, he thinks it was a great agreement. He speaks of our need to regain "credibility" in the process and to live up to our obligations. He ignores Palestinian violations, and trusts Yasser Arafat. Shahak hankers for the good old days, when the peace process with the Palestinians was galloping forward through goodwill, and the international community consequently was in love with us. He would move forward quickly towards a painful settlement with Syria over the Golan (all the Golan?), and thus hope to settle things in Lebanon, too. If you ask me, this isn't very centrist.

Middle-of-the-road Israelis - and yes, I think we are many and growing - are pretty cynical about Oslo and quite disillusioned. There's no going back now; and we will have to live with the Palestinian state it created. But at this point Oslo's dangers and perils rival its gains, and a centrist prime minister would give expression to that. A centrist leader would focus on fixing Oslo, on holding Arafat to his obligations, and on protecting our security, settlement and water interests as we move into the next, critical stages. On reassuring the Israeli public that he would drive a hard bargain. A genuine centrist leader would sound, in fact, much like - Binyamin Netanyahu. But with a pinch more credibility and a bushel less bombast.

But our new would-be "centrist" honcho is absolutely certain that Netanyahu's policies are unredeemingly and categorically dangerous. There has been no similar reproach for the Labor/Meretz positions. Labor, you see, made no mistakes. This is centrist?

Nor does Shahak's "centrist" chatter on religious-secular relations sound authentic. He speaks of ending religious coercion, and supporting personal rights and freedoms against the rabbinate's monopoly in Jewish marriage and divorce. He supports the Neeman compromise on conversions, and wants to end, without coercion, across-the-board haredi draft-dodging. Legitimate, logical demands. But none of this is balanced by any expression of concern for the Jewish character of the state or evidence of a commitment to intensified Jewish or classical Zionist education. I don't think Shahak has any idea what Jewish content he would fill our grandchildren's heads with, once he's done away with all the big bad religious bogeymen, their laws and their unjust perks. Reading Amos Oz's works, "loving your neighbor as yourself," and "smiling again" is nice, but contains little identity-building stamina or substance. "Israel netto," as Shahak ambiguously put it, isn't too impressive as a value-system.

Finally, I have no choice but to judge the political novice Shahak by the company he keeps. His candidacy was hatched in the homes of Leah Rabin and her daughter Dahlia. The politicos who advise him - sitting at his side in every TV spot - include Oslo godfather Uri Savir and Behira Bardugo (both top aides to Shimon Peres) and Shimon Sheves (Yitzhak Rabin's polemic director-general). There is no one from the Right or even from the conservative wing of the Labor Party. These are some of the key guys behind the horribly cantankerous Labor-Meretz government of 1992-96; a government that led a sustained crusade against religious institutions and a merciless assault on right-wing institutions. A spiteful, divisive government. Oh, and one more thing: Shahak is aligning himself with the opportunist, haredi-bashing Ronni Milo.

So I ask you: Is Shahak's push truly "centrist"? Can we expect it to be consensus-building and loving, as Shahak promises? Or is Shahak's "centrist" party just a populist twist on, or a kinder, gentler mask for, a new Labor/Meretz force in Israeli politics?

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak may be idealistic, quality leadership material. He could be a welcome change from the rhetorical excesses and wild fantasies of other leaders. And if your political and religious perspectives are decidedly left of center, he might be worth voting for - although I think Ehud Barak has a better claim on the territory.

But don't go passing off Shahak as a centrist. Thus far, he's said or done nothing to earn that worthy title. (Jerusalem Post Jan 10)

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