A Collection of the Week's News from Israel

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

12 Shvat 5759    January 29, 1999    Issue number 202

NEWS

PM Wins Primary; Arens is New Defense Minister

Moshe Arens has returned to the Defense Ministry. The Knesset approved his appointment Wednesday as Israel's new Defense Minister in a 31-10 vote. The Labor party abstained. He replaces Yitzhak Mordechai who was fired on Saturday night and subsequently joined the Prime Ministerial race. A formal ceremony was held this afternoon welcoming Arens back to the Defense Ministry. Arens has stated that he supports the implementation of already-existing agreements, including the Wye memorandum, and that he is prepared to meet with Yasser Arafat. PM Netanyahu soundly defeated Arens Monday in the race for the Likud leadership. Only 31.5% of the 168,000 eligible Likud voters took part in the election, of whom 82% voted for Netanyahu. At the press conference announcing Arens' appointment, Netanyahu presented what he called "the Likud's leading trio - myself, [Foreign Minister] Ariel Sharon, and Moshe Arens," and said that it would continue to lead in the next government that he forms. "Our policy is to demand complete reciprocity from the Palestinian Authority, without which we are not obligated to keep our part of the Wye Agreement. If the PA does fulfill its obligations, however, then we are committed to keeping our side as well," said Netanyahu. (Arutz 7 Jan 26,27)

Golan Law Passes

The Knesset voted Tuesday 53-30 to approve the Golan bill. The law states that no part of the Golan or Jerusalem may be transferred to a foreign power without an absolute majority of 61 Knesset Members and a popular referendum. MK Alex Lubotsky, who recently joined the still-unnamed new centrist party, responded on Arutz-7 to criticism regarding the party's stand on the Golan issue: "There is still no final formulation of our position on this issue. In all honesty, the problem is not in finding some vague formulation on which everyone will agree. We can always find wording that will satisfy everyone. The main problem is in the reality of the situation, that in this case there is no middle way: the Syrian position - now, and for as long as Assad remains in power - is 'all or nothing.' This means that the Syrians demand that we return to the Sea of Galilee as our border, and nothing less. If there were a possibility of compromise, even I might agree to it, but there is none."

Avi Ze'ira, Chairman of the Golan Settlements Committee, also participated in the discussion with Lubotsky. He said, "It is amazing, that a group of people, without ideas and without a platform, get together with only one goal: to topple Netanyahu. Then, afterwards, they put together a platform which is the same as Labor's, and they proudly announce that they are in favor of a compromise in the Golan. As MK Lubotsky said, such an option does not exist. I am astonished that MK Lubotsky and others who have always been in favor of no withdrawal from the Golan would even join up with such a group." In response, Lubotsky, a religious Jew, said, "I admit that my presence in this group has its problems. But if we wish to solve the burning problems that we have, such as the religious-secular divisions, and the norms of government, and the like, we have no choice but to work within this difficult mix of religious and secular, left and right." (Arutz 7 Jan 26)

Fatah: "Land Demands Blood"

Sahar Habash, a member of the Fatah Central Council, delivered a particularly hostile speech Sunday night, in the name of Yasser Arafat. Habash said that Palestine will not be liberated with agreements, but that "the land demands blood.... Every piece of land justifies a battle." Habash promised, "The conflict with Israel will continue until the goal is achieved." (Arutz 7 Jan 25)

PA Releases Jihad Leader

The Palestinian Authority recently released an Islamic Jihad leader, who had been detained a month ago because of inflammatory remarks he made against U.S. President Clinton. Several days prior to Clinton's arrival in Gaza, Abdullah al-Shami told a Spanish television interviewer that he would be "happy if the American President were to be killed during his visit to the Palestinian Authority areas." Al-Shami was subsequently arrested by the Palestinian security service, but was freed last weekend. The paper reported that the PA said that al-Shami had committed himself to refrain from violating Palestinian law. (Arutz 7 Jan 25)

Hareidi Nachal Group Enlists in IDF

A group of 30 hareidi youth enlisted in the IDF Monday. Named "Netzach," which stands for the Hebrew words Hareidi Army Youth, the group will serve for three years, combining combat training and activity with Torah study. In addition, they will start a new settlement, like other Nachal groups, possibly in the Jordan Valley. This is the first hareidi-Nachal unit of its type in over 20 years. Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Yehuda Duvdevani, Head of the Nachal and Youth Wing in the Defense Ministry, told Arutz-7 today, "These are boys who have stopped learning in yeshivot over the past year or so. There are others, but we chose a select group of 30 that will lead the way for others to follow in their footsteps... There will be rabbis who will accompany them during their service. We will study the situation, and get to know the boys and whatever problems they may have, and we will try to provide the best solutions that we can. They are great guys, with a lot of motivation and desire to contribute, and they realize that they have a mission." Special arrangements will be made for the new soldiers, such as all-male units, food meeting the highest kashrut standards, and the like. (Arutz 7 Jan 25)

Limor Livnat in Hebron

Communications Minister Limor Livnat visited Hebron Wednesday to participate in a special ceremony celebrating the issuance of the new Hebron stamp. The stamp, issued as part of Israel's jubilee, shows 2 scenes: one, a view of Hebron, and the other, representing Ma'arat HaMachpela. At the ceremony Hebron leader Noam Arnon spoke about the symbolic importance of the stamp, representing Israeli sovereignty. He also mentioned that the Hebron Accords, which transferred 80% of Hebron to Arafat and the terrorists, were implemented exactly two years ago to the day. He emphasized that Minister Livnat was one of the ministers who opposed and voted against implementation of the accords in the Israeli cabinet. Communications Minister Limor Livnat told the audience that this stamp dedication in Hebron, in spite of its seeming unimportance, meant more to her than many of the "bigger, more important" projects she deals with. (News from Hebron Jan 27)

Jewish Child Injured by Arabs

A seven year-old boy was lightly injured Wednesday morning when Palestinian Arabs stoned a van near the village of Bitunyah, on its way from Talmon to Jerusalem. Local Jewish residents have registered repeated complaints of assaults on their vehicles, but the IDF has thus far failed to curtail the Arab violence in the area. (Arutz 7 Jan 27)

PA Official Attempted to Bolt thru Roadblock

Head of the Palestinian Authority "parliament," Abu Alla, was involved in a confrontation with Israeli border police last Shabbat. Arutz-7 correspondent Haggai Huberman reports that an Israeli Border Police checkpoint in Jerusalem's Ras El-Amud neighborhood stopped Abu Allah's vehicle while on his way to Ramallah. Abu Allah and his driver refused to show their identity cards and then attempted to run the roadblock. The police stopped the car, but thereafter permitted it to return to Ras El-Amud. (Arutz 7 Jan 27)

Hashomer Hatzair Kibbutz Goes Strictly Kosher

Kibbutz Yehiam, of the Hashomer Hatzair Kibbutz movement, has transformed its main kitchen into a strictly "mehadrin" kosher facility. Supervisors from the Rabbinate will remain on the premises throughout the day. Kibbutz Yehiam's secretariat emphasized that the decision was made for economic reasons, namely to attract tourists from the religious and Hareidi sectors. (Arutz 7 Jan 27)

Religious Councils Law Passes by One Vote

The Knesset passed the Religious Councils Law Tuesday morning by the narrow vote of 50-49, with one abstention. All members of local religious councils will, by law, now have to swear loyalty in writing to the Chief Rabbinate. The opposition voiced a technical protest vote after the vote, but Knesset Speaker Dan Tichon rejected their claim. Yitzchak Mordechai voted in favor of the law, while Dan Meridor did not show up for the vote. The Likud's Moshe Katzav explained the purpose of the law in the Knesset today: "Our goal is only to preserve the status quo, and to prevent religious coercion against the Orthodox, traditional populace, who would otherwise be forced to sit in the same body with people who don't even recognize the body's authority." MK Dedi Tzucker (Meretz) said, "How can we accept a bill that tells two-thirds of the Jewish people that they are not eligible to sit on a religious council?" The intent of those who sponsored the law was that religious councils need not resort to measures such as those taken by the Haifa and Tel Aviv councils last night. In their efforts to prevent Reform and Conservative members from sitting on the religious-services body, the Haifa council members voted to end the court-ordered session immediately after it started, and in Tel Aviv, the required quorum was not present. (Arutz 7 Jan 26)

"Centrist" Party Press Conference, and Reactions

The four leaders of the new centrist party held a televised press conference Monday night, kicking off their election campaign. Party leader and recently-ousted Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai said that the top priority of the party will be "the re-establishment of the national partnership on the basis of unity in the nation." He said that, if elected, he would head a government that would strive for a broad-based coalition, secular-religious dialogue, and equal rights for minorities. Mordechai promised to conduct negotiations with our neighbors to determine Israel's borders, while firmly standing on Israel's security and settlement interests. He said he could accept a territorial compromise in the Golan. Roni Milo, who is likely to be in the fourth spot of the party list, after Mordechai, Amnon Lipkin-Shachak, and Dan Meridor, spoke out sharply against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: "[The late Prime Minister] Menachem Begin is turning over in his grave at the way Netanyahu rules."

Responses:

* Benny Begin, running for Prime Minister, said that he objects to the use of his father's memory in the political campaign. "I am against communing with the dead. This has unfortunately become the style in politics, even by those who were [my father's] political opponents during his lifetime."

* Prime Minister Netanyahu: "This [new party] is a strange group of camouflaged-leftists. It will be a marginal, passing phenomenon, with no substance."

* Labor party leader MK Ehud Barak implied that the new party would join him in the second round of the elections and lead to his victory: "These are good people, who, we have seen, are no different from me. You would have to use a microscope to find the differences between the platform of One Israel [Barak's umbrella organization] and what they plan to present." Barak also said, "This election campaign is a struggle of the entire People of Israel against the extremists from Tel Romeida and Moskowitz. I have no doubt that the alliance formed in the past few days will win the elections, and will put a stop, once and for all, to [Netanyahu's] surrender to extremists."

* Baruch Marzel of Tel Romeida, responding on Arutz-7 to Barak's remarks: "First of all, I did not even vote for Netanyahu in the last elections, and there is certainly no alliance between us. In fact, I am now one the Prime Minister's biggest opponents." Marzel added, "All three of them - Barak, Netanyahu, and Mordechai - are equally dangerous to the Land of Israel. The only difference is that if Netanyahu is elected, there will be barely any objections from the right when he carries out the Wye Agreement, but if Barak carries it out, then at least the important value of 'protest' will be aroused." (Arutz 7 Jan 26)

NRP Open to Those Who "Identify with Goals"

The National Religious Party voted on its platform yesterday, as well as on two significant changes in party policy: The 8th spot on the party's list of Knesset candidates will be reserved for a woman, and non-religious Jews who identify with the party's goals will be invited to join. The latter clause was proposed by MK Chanan Porat. The NRP platform expresses objections to a Palestinian state, the Wye Agreement, and a withdrawal from the Golan. The party also calls for the annexation of parts of Judea and Samaria in the event of a unilateral Palestinian declaration of a state. (Arutz 7 Jan 25)

Netanyahu Fires Mordechai

Prime Minister Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai Saturday night, and Mordechai's then took over the number-one position in the new centrist party. The firing was accompanied by mutual recriminations by Netanyahu and Mordechai. The Prime Minister wrote in the letter of dismissal he sent the Defense Minister Saturday night, "No man's personal interests can stand above the principles for which he was elected. Anyone who betrays the principles of those who voted for him is unfit to be among our ranks." Mordechai responded that Netanyahu's letter was "full of lies, slurs and inaccuracies, as befits a small-minded politician." Netanyahu sent the dismissal letter to Mordechai by special messenger, and then, moments after the letter arrived, held a nationally-televised press conference in which he announced the firing. Mordechai, appearing on national television afterwards, read aloud from Psalms 120, in which David prays to be saved from lies and deceit. At Sunday's cabinet meeting, Mordechai read aloud from Samuel I, Chapter 15, which tells how the prophet Samuel informed King Saul that G-d had "torn the kingdom from you." Netanyahu replied, "Don't give me speeches about truth and lies... You sent me messengers asking me to guarantee that you will be Defense Minister [even in a national-unity government]." Mordechai left the Cabinet room, and went from there to the Western Wall, and from there to meet briefly with Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. Mordechai. Former Finance Minister Yaakov Ne'eman has backed Netanyahu's version of the story. Ne'eman said that Yitzchak Mordechai requested a signed contract with the Prime Minister guaranteeing him [Mordechai] both the second spot on the Likud Knesset list and the position of Defense Minister. Ne'eman stated that just when he, Mordechai and Netanyahu were close to signing the agreement, he heard on the news that Mordechai was simultaneously carrying on negotiations with Shachak, Meridor and Milo.

Yesha Council head Pinchas Wallerstein expressed satisfaction at the departure of Yitzchak Mordechai from the Defense Ministry. He said, "Mordechai has many merits as a soldier and a commander in the IDF, but not as the man responsible for Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria. Whoever replaces him will barely be able to be worse than he was. At the very least, we would assume and hope that the man who replaces him will be willing to talk with us and study our problems." Speaking with Arutz-7 today, Wallerstein said, "He sometimes allowed his aides to help us a bit, but he personally attempted to avoid meeting us whenever possible. He sabotaged many government decisions regarding construction in Yesha. His decisions about Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria, such as the critical El-Aroub bypass road, were based on whether or not they would upset the Palestinians," Wallerstein said. Uri Elitzur, Director of the Prime Minister's Office, told Arutz-7 today, "Even under the standards of present-day Israeli politics, I think that a Defense Minister conducting negotiations at one and the same time with his own Prime Minister and with an opposing political body sets a new low. I think the Prime Minister displayed tremendous patience with him, and waited until after the last second before firing him." Ma'aleh Adumim mayor Benny Kashriel, a deputy chairman on the Yesha Council, expressed satisfaction at the firing of Mordechai: "I am very happy that Mordechai has finally found his true place. He was never really a Likudnik. His departure will only help the Likud."

MK Chanan Porat of the NRP was asked in his capacity as a Bible teacher to relate to Mordechai's recitation of biblical verses at today's cabinet meeting. Porat observed, "First of all, if Itzik Mordechai feels that he has been lied to, then it is his right and even admirable that he expresses it in the language of the Tanach (Bible). It actually gives these concerns a certain depth. But Yitzchak Mordechai should remember that before he directs such arrows at others, he himself must have 'clean hands and a pure heart.' Mordechai read a verse implying that [those claiming that his actions are motivated by personal ambition] are lying. I find it hard to believe that these claims are unfounded. For a long time, Netanyahu was deliberating over whether or not to go to a national-unity government, an arrangement that should have been politically very acceptable to Mordechai. But he blocked the move, fearing that he would not be able to continue to serve as Defense Minister in such a government. It is therefore hard for me to believe that this issue [personal ambition] is irrelevant to him." In reference to the verses cited by Mordechai, Porat said that a fundamental principle of Torah is that the text must never be totally severed from its plain meaning. "The group of liars and deceivers in the verses he quoted are those who 'hate peace', as is written there, 'I [speak] peace, and they are for war.' That Yitzchak Mordechai chooses to express these emotions not towards our real enemies, towards those who respond to our calls for peace with 'they are for war,' but rather directs these words at the Prime Minister and the government - this is truly painful." Porat said that the chapter quoted by Mordechai from the Book of Samuel also involved a corruption of the context and a misplaced comparison, given Mordechai's own political opinions: "Samuel tells Saul that the latter should have used the characteristic of 'din' - strict justice - and not compassion, in dealing with the Amalekite King Agag. [Obviously Mordechai does not advocate] the modern parallel of Samuel killing Agag with his own sword, which would be the Chief Rabbi publicly putting to death a Hamas terrorist who has just carried out a mass terrorist attack.The quoting of verses must be done very carefully and with much intellectual honesty." (Arutz 7 Jan 24)

Ha'aretz newspaper reported on Friday that Yitzchak Mordechai joined the Likud prior to the 1996 elections only after he had been turned down several times by the Labor party. Reporter Hannah Kim, implying that Mordechai was not the first politician of Sephardic descent who was rebuffed by Labor and then joined the Likud, reviewed his ups and downs with Labor: Yitzchak Rabin turned down a proposal that Mordechai run on a Labor ticket for mayor of Jerusalem, and suggested that he run for deputy-mayor instead; Shimon Peres later offered him the position of Director-General of the Public Security Ministry, but Mordechai wanted to be a minister; Peres suggested that he run in the Labor primaries, and Mordechai countered with asking to head the Shin Bet secret service. When Peres did not agree, Mordechai promptly joined the Likud. (Arutz 7 Jan 25)

President Advised Mordechai to Leave Likud

Arutz-7's Haggai Segal has learned that President Ezer Weizman was instrumental in Mordechai's decision to bolt the Likud. Weizman phoned Mordechai several times last week, advising Mordechai to resign from the Netanyahu government. The President told Mordechai, "It's about time that a person of Sephardic descent runs for Prime Minister. The public will like it." Segal said that despite all, Mordechai had not made a 100% decision to join the centrist party, and that it was Netanyahu's letter of dismissal that pushed him over the brink. Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon backed Netanyahu in his "preemptive strike." Segal noted that Netanyahu truly wanted Mordechai to remain in the Likud, but could not promise him the Defense Ministry under all circumstances. "Mordechai refused to return Netanyahu's calls many times, and humiliated Netanyahu in many other ways," said Segal. (Arutz 7 Jan 24)

Yesha Transportation to Be Examined

The government adopted the proposal of Transportation Minister Sha'ul Yahalom to establish a high-level ministerial committee to improve the transportation infrastructure in Judea and Samaria. Yahalom told his colleagues that the number of accidents in Yesha is proportionately higher than in the rest of Israel, and that this is partly the result of the many neglected roads and intersections there. (Arutz 7 Jan 24)

PA Wants Another Airport

Israeli sources said that Israel will not allow the construction of another Palestinian Airport. The statement came in response to reports that the Palestinian Authority is pressing for the construction of a runway and terminal in Bethlehem. According to initial estimates, the facility would cost the PA $5 million, most of which the Palestinians plan to raise from European Union member countries. The issue is not only a matter of security, but also an economic one. The Palestinians would like to be able to serve the tremendous numbers of tourists who are expected to arrive in Israel for the year 2000. Arutz-7 correspondent Ariel Kahane reports that in principle, the Oslo accord allows for the formation of an air-link between Gaza and Judea/Samaria. (Arutz 7 Jan 21)


Commentary

Groping in the Fog By Moshe Zak

The election campaign is in full swing. Officially, this is the result of the early-elections legislative initiative by opposition MKs Haim Ramon and Haim Oron, but it was actually sparked by the objections of many coalition members to the Wye Memorandum. The agreement cost Netanyahu his Knesset majority.

On the eve of the Wye conference, Netanyahu claimed that he was willing to take a political gamble and endanger his coalition's stability to achieve a good agreement with the Palestinians that would assure Israel's security. Netanyahu was relying on the safety net offered by Labor Party leaders to implement any agreement he would reach at Wye.

But after the agreement was reached, he soon discovered that he had fallen between the cracks; he had lost some votes of his coalition partners and the votes promised by the opposition.

The Wye agreement hastened the coalition's internal disintegration, as rifts developed between those demanding its complete and immediate implementation, without conditioning it on the Palestinians' fulfilling their commitments, and those calling to totally abandon the Wye agreement. Yitzhak Mordechai led the former group; Benny Begin the latter.

Surprisingly, though, the Wye agreement has not yet become a central issue in the election campaign. In his letters to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Mordechai, US President Bill Clinton did not forget to rub in the importance of the Wye agreement and praise their part in achieving it. But the voters don't seem inclined to debate an outdated accord. After all, under the agreement, the negotiations on the permanent settlement should already have started. But the major parties' stances on the subject

of the permanent settlement remain shrouded in mystery.

The elections are meant to be the ultimate opinion poll on all essential issues, great and small. But unfortunately, as we are bombarded, morning, noon, and night, with an increasing number of pre-election opinion polls, we lose the opportunity to make a precise assessment of the public's views, both on questions of religion and state and concerning relations with our neighbors.

When Ronni Milo first raised the centrist party standard, he sharply criticized the clericalization of our society. But when Yitzhak Mordechai was chosen as leader of the party, he not only went to pray at the Western Wall, but also went to kiss Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's hand. The new party acts like all the old parties; it is trying to be as variegated as possible, to make itself attractive to different groups of voters, religious and anti-religious alike.

Before the crisis that led to the elections, Netanyahu and Ehud Barak conducted talks about establishing a national-unity government. In the 10 secret sessions, agreements were reached on a number of diplomatic issues,

including the Golan Heights question. The Labor Party claimed that there were no serious differences of opinion on territorial compromise on the Golan Heights. Now the center party comes along and says it wants to renew talks with the Syrians on the basis of territorial compromise. But the new party hasn't made it clear what it means by "compromise." Does it mean that it will refuse negotiations on the basis of a Syrian ultimatum for a full withdrawal to the shores of the Kinneret? It doesn't specify if we should refuse to conduct negotiations if the Syrians refuse any compromise.

More complicated are the solutions being proposed in Judea and Samaria. The Hebron and Wye agreements show that the Likud is also ready for territorial compromise. Both parties make withdrawal conditional on Israel's security needs. But both they and the center party are unable to define the parameters of these security needs. For example, do they refer only to the Etzion and Ariel blocs, or indicate also a firm stand against concessions in the Jordan Valley? Before the negotiations on the permanent settlement, none of them will reveal a map of their fallback positions. They are only talking about their starting points in the negotiations. Concerning the extent of possible concessions there are differences of opinion, even within the party leaderships.

Only the NRP and Herut at one extreme, and the Communists and Arab parties at the other, have taken clear stands on territorial compromise. The other parties have obscured their positions, and none of them tells the voter what will happen if the Palestinians refuse to accept our generous offers and demand everything. So the public is unable to express its opinion on their manifestos. Their vague language also serves to conceal the differences of opinion in parties that act like supermarkets, selling a variety of conflicting positions.

Almost all the parties repeat the mantra of "united Jerusalem under eternal Israeli sovereignty." But none of them makes clear what will happen if Jerusalem becomes the only issue preventing the signing of a peace treaty with the Palestinians. Will they be ready to sacrifice this stand for the sake of a formal peace agreement?

Nor do the parties take the trouble to make clear to themselves - let alone the voter - whether the Palestinian state that Shimon Peres is touting as "an essential need of Israel" is the same one that Ariel Sharon is willing to acquiesce, after limiting its powers on security issues, water, and its ability to sign treaties with other countries.

The elections are a great opportunity for the nation to express its opinion on the vital issues, domestic and foreign. And we should not miss the opportunity via nebulous platforms and via questionable, sporadic opinion polls. (Jerusalem PostJan 27)


Leap of Faith Jerusalem Post Editorial

Whether you jump out of an airplane yourself, or someone pushes you at the last moment, it takes guts to get to the door. Yitzhak Mordechai proved wrong the pundits who thought he would never leave the Likud, by standing one step away from what was sure to be a long fall. Binyamin Netanyahu understandably pushed him out the door, but this display of decisiveness only made the best of the latest and most electorally serious loss from his cabinet.

Perhaps in an effort to lend some dignity to the coming battle between them, Yitzhak Mordechai parted from Netanyahu and the cabinet with words from the Bible. In addition to Psalm 120 ("Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips ..."), Mordechai referred Netanyahu to Samuel I:15: "And Samuel said to [Saul], the Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, that is better than you." It is hard to understand this reference without concluding that Mordechai has an ego of biblical proportions. Since such an ego seems more the rule than the exception these days among political candidates, a perhaps greater problem facing Mordechai and his adopted home (still under construction) was succinctly captured by a verse that Mordechai seems to have missed.

In the same biblical chapter, Saul recognizes the sin that lost him his kingdom: "I have transgressed ... because I feared the people and obeyed their voice." Netanyahu is accused of being driven by polls and the next news cycle, while the new centrist party is claiming to offer a "different leadership." Now it turns out that the leader of the new party will be Yitzhak Mordechai - because on a given day he polled a hair better than either Amnon Lipkin-Shahak or Dan Meridor.

Poll-driven politics is the opposite of leadership, and it is certainly not "different." In addition, it is difficult for Mordechai to claim, on the one hand, that "many times" he left cabinet meetings because he "could not hear inaccurate reports made to the government," and on the other to claim he was Netanyahu's most loyal minister. Whatever Mordechai says now about Netanyahu begs the questions why did he stay so long, and why does it seem that he would stay longer if he could stay as defense minister?

Despite the circumstances of its birth, the team of Meridor, Mordechai, and Shahak is impressive and refreshing in a number of ways. It is arguably the "dream team" that each centrist candidate was looking to bring together. Mordechai himself is a unique phenomenon in Israeli politics - the opposite of a "prince," he arrived in Israel at age six from Iraqi Kurdistan, and rose through the military ranks despite his not fitting the elite stereotype. He is proud of his ethnic origins and a source of pride in return, but his appeal is not limited to a particular ethnic group.

Together, Meridor, Mordechai, and Shahak neatly straddle both the broad center of the political spectrum and the sociological divide among ethnic groups. In the public eye, all three are individually credible prime ministerial candidates. Even with respect to the religious-secular divide, Mordechai brings a Sephardi traditionalism that is the closest thing Israel has to an organic bridge between these two camps.

Haim Ramon may be right that the significance of Mordechai's departure to the center is that it will "break the tie" between the Left and Right that has existed since Menachem Begin's election in 1977. The terms Left and Right have become blurred of late, so that for purposes of the next election, the more salient divide has become pro- and anti-Netanyahu. Whether Israeli politics have really realigned or not will depend on whether the "center" is an extension of the Left, as Netanyahu will argue, or a distinct entity with distinct purposes.

The platform of the new party is the party's last chance to make a successful first impression. It will take much sustained, unified commitment to a compelling platform to overcome the initial impression of division, opportunism, and drift. To do this, the new party cannot hide behind slogans of unity, prosperity, and good government, but must take concrete stands and make practical proposals. Such proposals will not emerge from polls, but from doing hard policy-oriented homework and looking for solutions that will work, not necessarily what will sell best. (Jerusalem Post, Jan 25)

Half Tea and Half Coffee By Sarah Honig

Meretz leader Yossi Sarid derided middle-of-the-roaders Monday and took issue with their contention that any position that is not based on compromise constitutes extremism. Extremism, as Sarid put it, is in the eye of the beholder, and the center line is often "not really the midpoint between two opposing views. Mostly it means abstaining from taking any stand, while trying to please everyone, or at least trying not to annoy anyone. It is avoiding the issue. It is half tea and half coffee."

Key members of the new centrist party are now trying to brew just such a drink. They haven't finished the job, as new leader Yitzhak Mordechai attested at the party's press conference Monday. The founders are at loggerheads on too many issues. But both tea and coffee - and lots of sugar - are clearly among the ingredients of those platform planks already agreed upon and enunciated by Mordechai. The obvious effort is to steer cautiously away from all controversy and say nothing that half the population is sure to vehemently oppose.

Moreover, what Mordechai read out loud last night says a lot that is impossible to disagree with, almost like Amnon Lipkin-Shahak's platitudes at his first press conference, when he came out against traffic accidents and domestic violence. The battle against both is indeed featured in the embryo platform. So, according to Mordechai, is equality for women, fighting discrimination against immigrants, improving education, modernizing mass transport, adding green areas to urban areas and, of course, eradicating unemployment. Only Shahak's goal of making people smile more is not explicitly spelled out.

But then, little else is likely to be spelled out. The reason is two-fold. This is a party which aspires to appeal to such a varied electorate that it dare not cross too many groupings. This deliberately non-specific appeal is also mandated by the fact that the party's founders and leaders hail from different political backgrounds and continue to espouse different causes. They are united only by their implacable abhorrence of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and by their exile status from an assortment of political parties.

This makes a great many issues potential time bombs - hence the need to equivocate. Mordechai tried to circumvent questions on the Golan and spoke vaguely of "the need for compromise" and of "renewing negotiations with Syria, without giving up our interests on the Golan, and thereby also reaching agreement on Lebanon." He was loath to explain how or say more, mindful of the fact that only last week Dan Meridor advised that "the Golan and Lebanon issues not be linked" and that "we not compete among ourselves over who will cede more of the Golan."

Meridor's sidekick, MK Alex Lubotzky hails from a one-issue party - The Third Way - which set out to make sure the Golan remains under Israeli rule. At the other end of the very broad centrist spectrum is Shahak, who on many occasions said that Israel should hand over the entire Golan.

The same difficulties which exist over the Golan issue are present in any discussion of Oslo, though clever phraseology will eventually cover them up. Meridor, the most right-wing of the bunch, continues - true to his Likud origins - to treat Oslo as an undesirable fait accompli. He now finds himself in the same party with Uri Savir, one of the original Oslo architects and one of its most enthusiastic proponents. Shahak himself participated in the Oslo negotiations, and Nissim Zvilli and Haggai Merom, who left Labor for the new party, never even remotely shared the doubt about the process expressed at one stage by Labor chairman Ehud Barak.

On the issue of religion and state, Ronni Milo is poised at one end, having already alienated traditional and haredi voters with his libertarian rhetoric. At the other end is the scripture-spouting Mordechai, who on Sunday rushed to pay homage to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and whom the whole nation saw on TV kissing the Shas mentor's beard and hand.

Yosef, it should be recalled, lost no opportunity to heap invective on the High Court and curses on its judges. Meridor, however, made sure the platform includes pledges to draw up a constitution and push ahead with civil rights legislation. What would Yosef say about that?

Maybe he wouldn't care, as long as the pledges in the platform are never implemented. The problem will begin with any intent to carry out any pledge. At that point, it is not certain that centrists with divergent orientations will willingly swallow the brew of half tea and half coffee. (Jerusalem Post Jan 26)


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