Yossi Beilin on Facing the ChallengeThese are the opening remarks of Yossi Beilin, member of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) and leader of the Meretz-Yachad Party in Israel, to a conference call sponsored by the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, Aug. 20. The transcript is posted on the group's website, http://btvshalom.org/resources/transcripts.shtml, under the title "After the Ceasefire: What Comes Next?" An audio recording of the questions and answers is also available on the website. Some punctuation has been added.
I believe that we find ourselves—in the beginning of the ceasefire after 33 days of the second war in Lebanon—in a very strange situation. One of the most interesting results is that it is a kind of a meeting point of weak leaders. We are talking about Bashir al-Assad of Syria, who is considered much weaker than his father, who is boycotted by the Americans and not only by them, who was pushed into a corner to create an alliance with Iran, and who is backing Hezbollah, despite the fact that he is representing a very secular regime while Hezbollah is one of the most religious movements in the region. Even after a period in which there was very tough tension between Syria and Hezbollah, even bloodshed, years ago, he is not considered as strong as his father. He has suggested several times to negotiate with Israel on a peace agreement and was rejected, first by Sharon and then by Olmert.
Another weak leader is Fuad Siniora. Fuad Siniora is the Prime Minister of Lebanon. He is considered a moderate, a pragmatic leader, close to the late Rafik Hariri. He is close to the west—the Americans are supporting him very much. Many western countries would like to see him stronger, and we are watching him struggle with his president, the Christian Emile Lahoud, who is close to Syria, and of course with Hezbollah which became a kind of state within a state, an army within a state. He [Siniora] would like to see a peaceful development; he was the one who called for a ceasefire a month ago, and there is no question that had it been up to him we could have had peace with Lebanon, but unfortunately it is not only up to him.
The third weak leader is Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Rather than negotiating with him when he became the Palestinian President, Sharon preferred not to negotiate with him, and go on with his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. In the meantime Hamas won the parliamentary elections, and Mahmoud Abbas became an even weaker leader who doesn't have a majority in his party. Officially he is the leader of both the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, but practically, he is restricted and limited by Hamas and is far from being in the situation in which he can do exactly what he wants. He is considered one of the most moderate Palestinian leaders, and had it been up to him he would have liked to have a permanent agreement with Israel—he said so many many times.
There is a new weak leader in this strange club, and his name is Ehud Olmert. Until a month ago he was considered a new promise, backed by Bush, by the Americans, supported by many leaders and countries in the world, the new hope of Israel, who formed the government with the Labor Party and Amir Peretz, and promised to put an end to our occupation in the West Bank and even talked about withdrawing from 90% of the West Bank eventually. He did not believe it was possible to negotiate with the Palestinians for a permanent agreement, but he did believe that Israel should not remain in the territories.
His electoral agenda was a convergence plan of moving many, maybe 70,000, settlers, from the eastern side of the security fence to the western side of it. Today, after more than a month of war, he did not fulfill the promise, he is not considered as the one who won this war. He cannot go on with the convergence plan, and has already said that for the time being, his plan should be shelved, and one should deal only with the reconstruction of the Galilee, the north.
His support in public opinion went down dramatically to unprecedented numbers, and he is only 100 days into his job as an elected Prime Minister. His government is already shaky, he is already considered a kind of a lame duck, he is struggling against the demand to have an investigative committee, but I believe eventually he will have to comply with this because the public call is very strong. He will have to find a new agenda. For the time being his agenda is just maintenance. I believe that he himself knows that this is not attractive enough.
The fifth weak leader, of course, is President Bush. His support as you know is very low. He is approaching elections for the Congress in which he might lose his majority. Those who are close to him ideologically, like Senator Lieberman, are paying a political price for it. Iraq seems right now as a very big failure, and his plan to democratize the non-democratic states seems today a very big failure.
The question I am asking myself, and I am asking you, is whether in certain situations one can hope for a change just because of this weakness. Is it possible to use, or, in inverted quotations, to exploit, this weakness so that decent leaders will understand that they might find a common denominator by going for something big enough, which might serve the national interest and save their political lives?
I do believe that the role of the peace camp, wherever it is—Israel, Palestine, in other places, in the United States—is to try and push for this big thing, and one of the options for such a big thing is to have a second Madrid Conference 15 years after the first one, which took place on Oct. 31, 1991. My idea is that we should push for something like this so that Syria, Lebanon, Palestinians, Israelis, and of course America, or the Quartet, will participate in such a conference, will launch bilateral talks between Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinians, and try to suggest that in a few months it could be possible to have peace treaties with our neighbors.
From Darkness Into Light
I must admit that right now it might seem quite detached from reality. The reality seems very gloomy when you think about Israel, when you think of these 30 days of nightmare in which it was almost a courageous step to go from Tel Aviv to Haifa. And people do think that this mighty army of ours could not overcome the small militia of Hezbollah in a short while.
So the question right now is whether the embarrassment, the confusion, the gloomy feelings, and the weakness of the leaders, might lead us, at the appropriate time, to go toward something which will attract the attention of the peoples in the region, of the peoples in the world, away from this sadness, or darkness, into a hope and into light. This is the question.
I don't want to be a commentator, and I don't want to analyze exactly what went wrong, what happened, what exactly is the situation right now, because I do not believe I am a [objective] commentator. I can see things from my own very narrow point of view in which I can only tell you, that had we only been wise enough to make peace with Syria and with the Palestinians and with the Lebanese when it was possible years ago, we wouldn't have found ourselves in this situation and in war with Lebanon at the beginning of the 21st Century.
But we failed in the past, we made our mistakes, and we have to face the future and the new challenges, and ask ourselves whether it is possible now. And this is the question that I am asking myself, that I am asking my constituency, and trying to ask other constituencies, and I am asking you.