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Ha'aretz: "Splitting the left"

Peace Now Leader Janet Aviad: "(Olmert's) speech at the Herzliya Conference was a Peace Now speech."

01/31/2008

By Lily Galili

Writer Emil Habibi liked to tell the following joke: Two fishermen are sailing out to sea in a boat. Suddenly one of them feels something heavy pulling on his fishing rod. When he reels it in, they discover a mermaid with a beautiful face and a gorgeous tail. The fisherman looks at her longingly and immediately releases her. "What have you done?" cries his friend. "Don't you want to have her?" He gives him a meaningful look and replies: "Sure, but how?"

This story was cited this week by Prof. Yossi Yona, who teaches political philosophy, in an effort to illustrate his opinion on the future of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It was his way of reacting to the left wing's arguments against the demand for Olmert's resignation: i.e., the explanation that he may bring peace. "How?" wonders Yona. In 2000 the professor said of then-prime minister Ehud Barak: "Let him bring peace, and get out of my sight." This time around, he doesn't even believe in Olmert's ability to deliver the goods.

"I'm one of those who thinks Olmert should leave," Yona says. "I'm familiar with the internal discourse of the left, to the effect that he can promote peace. They're cynical. They know it's all spin, and that he's buying time for himself, with the money he transfers to the kibbutz movement, among other things."

Janet Aviad, one of the leaders of Peace Now, actually does not sound cynical about the situation; indeed, the depth of support and credit she is willing to give Olmert is surprising. As a Jerusalemite, it didn't enter her mind to vote for him in the mayoral elections way back when, but as far as she is concerned, he is now a different person.

"He's undergone a political conversion," she says with open affection. "I believe with all my heart that he really plans to bring peace. His speech at the Herzliya Conference was a Peace Now speech. I don't care what party he's from, I care only whether he has the political power to implement it. I think he's genuine, that he means it. He really wants to make peace - for himself, too - but mostly out of a profound awareness of his place in history."

Aviad heard Olmert himself mention these things at small-scale meetings. During these discussions she was also impressed by Olmert's ethical attitude toward the Palestinians. "The occupation itself hurts him," she says, recalling the conversation. "He doesn't hesitate to use this word. We haven't had such hope since 2000."

Adopting the tribe

Since 2000, the peace camp has been divided in its attitude toward the separation fence, and with regard to the disengagement as a unilateral step. This time the man himself constitutes the axis around which opinions are being formed. The views are determined by the degree of personal confidence, as well as by the initial attitudes toward the war. But these two variables cannot explain the segmentation, which is occasionally surprising.

Apparently something entirely different is happening here: For the first time in its history, the guardians of the peace camp are willing to adopt a leader from a different tribe into their own. He, for his part, is searching for a tribe. And in order to realize this adoption, both sides are willing to put up with a lot. Of all of Israel's prime ministers to date, only Olmert has what it takes to switch tribes. Even if Ariel Sharon had demonstrated against himself, he still would never have been absorbed by the peace tribe. Olmert has the right "look," the matching lexicon, and the appropriate family. Olmert recently met with a small group of left-wing activists, who were charmed by him. But not all the leftists feel that way.

Practical explanations alone cannot account for the complex situation characterizing the left at present. During the first days of the Second Lebanon War, Musi Raz and Moriah Shlomot, both former secretary-generals of Peace Now, found themselves on the same side of the barricades: As opposed to the vast majority of their colleagues in the movement, they immediately found themselves at anti-war demonstrations. "I think Olmert has to go home. Period," says Raz. "He has conducted two unsuccessful wars, in Lebanon and in Gaza, and one of them - the one in Gaza - is superfluous as well."

While Aviad admires Olmert's moral stance and also wants to believe the rumors she has been hearing about the prime minister's willingness to release Marwan Barghouti, the former leader of Fatah's military wing, from prison in exchange for kidnapped Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, Raz sees an entirely different reality. "One of the bad things happening to the left is the fact that it talks like Meretz, but acts like [former strategic affairs minister Avigdor] Lieberman when it comes to the ongoing assassinations, the behavior at the checkpoints, and the issue of the outposts, not one of which has been removed."

If the differences of opinion between Raz and Aviad are predictable in light of their original opinions on the Second Lebanon War, they are less self-evident when Shlomot, who shared Raz's viewpoint a mere six months ago, now differs with him. "In my opinion, Olmert has to stay," Shlomot says. "He's not the only one who was blind about this war. Nowadays, not only are his statements courageous, so are his actions. For example, giving up the coalition partnership with Avigdor Lieberman. But mainly I'm impressed by how quickly he has lost the arrogance that characterized the beginning of his term. I believe in the sincerity of his intentions."

And there you have the "Bibi test": For the left, the idea of having Benjamin Netanyahu as an alternative to Olmert constitutes the ultimate threat against those who are calling on Olmert to resign. "I really don't feel threatened," says Yona. "[Olmert] creates new and unacceptable standards for corruption in Israel. Besides, I don't think there's a major political difference between them [Olmert and Netanyahu]." Raz's far-reaching statement is even more surprising, coming from a former Meretz MK: "In terms of results, I'm not at all certain that Bibi is worse than Olmert."

In the test of the link between the extra-parliamentary arena and the parliamentary system, this cross-section of opinions leaves Labor and Meretz a great deal of room to maneuver.