Israel is presently experiencing a clear return to the past. The younger generation – Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, born in the 1940’s – was forced out of the political arena, and the older generation – Ariel Sharon (as Prime Minister) and Shimon Peres (as Foreign Minister), born in the 1920’s – returned to power. The generation that had struggled to create the state in 1948 took over from the next generation, that had been born into it.

How did this come about? It definitely does not simply represent some kind of “Zeitgeist” or a “democratic will of the people.” Political realities in Israel express ever more manipulations by, of and for the system, not the people; actually, it is quite questionable whether Israel can still be considered a democracy. The recent elections, for example, had nothing to do with the choice of the people. According to polls, about 80% of the citizens wanted general elections for the Knesset, but the political system imposed elections for Prime Minister only. Most voters on the left had preferred Peres as their candidate, but Barak – loyally assisted by the dovish Meretz party – blocked the Peres candidacy. An overwhelming majority of right-wing voters had preferred Netanyahu to Sharon; but the political system made Netanyahu quit the race. In this way, most Israeli’s were expected to participate in elections they did not want, and to vote for a candidate who was not their favorite. No wonder that the turnout was the lowest ever in Israeli history.

The key to Israel’s return to the past is the legacy of Barak – one of the worst Israeli prime-ministers, but alas not an unimportant one. Sharon’s victory was a logical consequence of Barak’s own legacy. No wonder, then, that Barak was so eager to get into Sharon’s cabinet as Defence Minister, yielding only under the heaviest pressure of his party – the very same party that joined Sharon in a broad coalition once it had forced Barak out.

What is the legacy of Barak? It cannot be found in any social or cultural achievements: Barak had none. It cannot be found in his contribution to Israel’s democracy: his contempt of democratic institutions makes Barak was a true disciple of Yitzhak Rabin. Barak’s legacy is ideological. He succeeded in reintroducing, even amongst the most devoted supporters of peace, the eternal slogan of all warring societies: “We want Peace, the Enemy wants War,” in a specific version that suits the case of occupation. This slogan was never truly abandoned by Israeli hard-liners, but Barak turned it into a new consensus, shared by almost the entire political spectrum.

How the Occupation is supported by its Opponents

To illustrate this, let us look at a representative column published recently in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. There is nothing special about this column, written by Uzi Benziman, a senior columnist with a clear anti-occupation commitment: its argument would be repeated almost verbatim by most Israelis on the dovish side. In his weekend column of 16th March, Benziman relates a recent Israeli atrocity: what he calls “setting up a tight blockade around the [Palestinian] city [of Ramallah] to try to block all access in either direction” (note how painstakingly he is avoiding the more concise term “siege”). Benziman mentions the official reason given for the siege by the Israeli army (a purported Palestinian plan to bring a car bomb from Ramallah into Jerusalem), falls short of criticizing it (why then were the other Palestinian towns besieged too?), refers to the international outcry against the suffering caused to the residents of Ramallah, and sums up:

“And so, after environmental closures, targeted assassinations, helicopter attacks, artillery fire, uprooting of orchards and dissecting the territories had already been deemed unacceptable, the government and the Israel Defense Forces were now being asked to remove the tight blockade from the repertoire of deterrent and punishing measures used to contend with Palestinian terror attacks.”

Being a dove, Benziman must condemn all those atrocities. He admits:

“Ostensibly, these demands are wholly justifiable: Collective punishment harms innocents, and pinpoint sniping is akin to execution without trial. This Israeli violence does not effect a weakening of Palestinian violence and does not help to resolve the bloody conflict gripping both sides.”

So Benziman indeed finds the actions neither moral nor constructive. But here comes the ‘but’:

“Still, the Israeli side might rightly wonder: Just what method is legitimate and permissible to use in order to combat murderous Palestinian terror? What retaliatory or deterrent measure will the world find acceptable? And if you say that ending the occupation and withdrawing to the 1967 lines is the formula for halting the cycle of violence, how do you reply to the argument that this option was tried nearly in full (by Ehud Barak) only to be met by the stubborn demand for the realization of the right of return?”

This is exactly where the legacy of Barak comes in. Read this passage carefully. Observe how the imperative to end the occupation is supplanted by a reference to Barak’s negotiations with Arafat. Those nebulous negotiations, according to Benziman, actually mean that Israel has “tried nearly in full”(!) the option of “ending the occupation and withdrawing to the 1967 lines”(!) – whereas in reality, as we all know, Israel has neither taken a single actual measure towards ending the occupation, nor withdrawn a single step towards the 1967 lines!

Up to the signing of the first Oslo agreement in 1993, Israeli doves shared the belief that there was an occupation, that it must be ended and that Israel must return to the 1967 borders. Benziman still echoes those good old days in his column. Since 1993, the concept of occupation has become questionable: most doves have believed that Israel was willing to put an end to it soon, so that the occupation was hardly worth resisting anymore; whereas several prominent figures in the peace camp – Amos Oz, Yossi Sarid – out of naiveté or outright hypocrisy, have sometimes raised the dangerous argument that the occupation had actually ended already, that the Palestinians actually had their own independent state “even if it wasn’t called so yet” and that Israel should take the issue off its agenda.

But now, after the collapse of Oslo, the tune of the doves has changed: in their view, Israel should not end the occupation, nor is it likely to end in any foreseeable future, nor has it ended it already. The occupation is alive and well, but only because – even though the “option of peace” was “tried nearly in full” by former PM Barak’s “generous offers” – the Palestinians replied with rejection and violence. The occupation has not ended simply because the Palestinians undermined Israel’s deepest desire to end it. The problem is no longer the occupation, but rather the Palestinians. In a brilliant colonialist twist, it is the Palestinian victims, not the Israeli perpetrators, who take the guilt.

It is not surprising to find this argument happily embraced by the pro-occupation camp: asked for his reaction to reports (immediately denied) about Sharon’s willingness to evacuate settlements in Gaza, a spokesperson for the settlers reminded us that “Barak had recently offered the Palestinians to evacuate a hundred settlements, but they refused” (Ha’aretz, 20th March 2001). But it is actually striking to see how anti-occupation columnists like Benziman recycle this official (ideo)logical fallacy and use it not merely to defend the occupation as a whole, but as an outright justification for siege and other acts of utmost brutality widely imposed upon civilian populations.

Palestinian Rejectionism: Myth or Reality?

So Barak’s legacy consists of convincing the peace camp that the Palestinians do not want peace. The ideological twist of blaming the victims is perverse, but how seriously can we take the claim that the Palestinians rejected Israel’s generous peace-seeking hand? This is not the place to go into detail, but let us just raise a few points:.

  • (a) Barak contradicted his own words about making “the most generous offer that Israel can make” by using this argument twice, once in the peace talks before the Al-Aqsa Intifada and then again in the renewed negotiations during the Intifada, so his own claims cannot be taken seriously.
  • (b) Barak’s words were further contradicted by his acts. Had Barak truly wanted to “turn every stone on the road to peace,” to withdraw from the territories and to evacuate settlements, he would not have erected some 45 new settlements during his 18 months in power and massively extended existing ones.
  • (c) No protocol of the Clinton-Barak-Arafat talks was ever published. What leaked was the famous “Clinton Proposal,” which does not mention the dismantling of a single Israeli settlement, but speaks only in positive terms of what Israel will be allowed to annex. From this leaked document, the Palestinian suspicions of a trap – a vague agreement that will not end the occupation, just like all previous Oslo-accords – seem very justified.
  • (d) The whole story – secret negotiations, “generous offers,” “rejectionist partner”, and then armed conflict – shows an astonishing similarity to the pattern of all too many “unsuccessful peace talks” under American auspices since the end of the Cold War (Israel-Syria; USA-Iraq; NATO-Serbia and others). This in itself raises the suspicion that we are dealing here not with reality, but with a New-World-Order fiction.
  • (e) Finally, note Barak’s haste to officially withdraw from the negotiating table whatever offers he had made, and to emphasize – backed by former president Clinton – that these offers do not bind the next Israeli government. Strangely enough, Barak’s cabinet had never seen the offers made to the Palestinians, but in one of its last sessions Barak made the cabinet pass a resolution officially withdrawing all offers he had made. Had Barak been interested in peace, he should have done just the opposite.

From all these points, it seems to follow that Palestinian rejectionism belongs to the realm of myth, not reality: that they were not offered anything, and rather than rejecting generous offers, they simply refused to surrender to an Israeli intention to get their consent for the perpetuation of the occupation.

But suppose Israel did make its “most generous offer,” and suppose the Palestinians did reject it. Does this legitimize the occupation? Does the Palestinian insistence on the (internationally acknowledged) Right of Return justify the Israeli occupation throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip? Does the Palestinian demand to get back 100% of their occupied lands legitimize the provocative presence of 400 Israeli settlers in the heart of Hebron, not to mention the murderous brutalities being used for crushing the Intifada.

From 2001 to 1948

An often heard argument is that Barak for the first time put all the hard-core issues on the table, broke old taboos and prepared the Israelis for the heavy price of peace. Nothing can be less true. Barak never confirmed any of the concessions ascribed to him by the media: on the contrary, he always stressed that he had made no concessions whatsoever. The “generous offers” theory was launched only once they had been allegedly rejected by the other side. The Israelis did not have time to get accustomed to the “heavy price of peace”: they heard of this price only after it had become clear that Israel was not going to pay it.

Futile as it is, Barak legacy holds firm. The hawks never abandoned their prejudices portraying all Arabs – or, even better, all non-Jews – as war-lovers. But Barak managed to take almost the entire Israeli peace camp back to square one, to “we want peace, but the Palestinians won’t let us”. What the devoted supporters of the Israeli occupation could not do in decades, Barak accomplished in less than two years: a real national unity, formed around the traditional pro-occupation platform.

Due to this legacy of Barak, the return of the previous generation of Israeli leaders was just a logical consequence. If “there is no partner for peace,” as now not only Barak but even Yossi Sarid claims, if the Palestinians just want “to throw Israelis into the sea” (as the Right of Return is usually interpreted in Israel), then we are back in 1948, in the War of Independence – and don’t let facts like 34 years of occupation, like regional superpower and nuclear weapons, like stable peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan confuse us. Barak often used 1948 as his historical frame of reference, modestly comparing himself to David Ben-Gurion and saying that “if necessary, Israel’s youth will fight like it did back in 1948.” By this historical comparison Barak was digging not only the actual graves of hundreds of Palestinians, but also his own political grave. After all, if we are back in 1948, says the voter, let us have as prime minister an old warrior from that generation.

And this is where Sharon takes over. It now remains to be seen how far Sharon will take the new consensus around the occupation and its “inevitable” and “justified” atrocities, and how he will keep his own promises to make peace: is it peace meaning peace, or rather peace meaning war? But whatever road Sharon may take, there is one thing we can be sure of: his loyal Foreign Minister Shimon Peres will always tell the world that it is the true and only road to peace.

Author: Ran HaCohen

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in computer science, an M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English, and Dutch). HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter From Israel" appears occasionally at