Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Taking Ghana for granted?

Israel still has no ambassador
in the capital of one of Africa's
most influential countries

The Zionist fascination with Africa began even before the birth of modern Israel. In his 1902 novel Altneuland (Old-New Land), Theodor Herzl wrote: "There is still one other question arising out of the disaster of the nations which remains unsolved to this day, and whose profound tragedy only a Jew can comprehend. This is the African question... I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule in saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans."

Herzl didn't live to see it, but in 1957 Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast, became the first African state to gain independence from British colonial rule; it also became the first African country to grant diplomatic recognition to the Jewish state.

Herzl's dream of "redeeming" Africa came closer to fruition soon after, when Israel began sharing what it itself was learning about development with African countries, including Ghana.

This month, Ghana celebrated 50 years of independence and Jerusalem marked 50 years since the opening of Israel¹s first embassy in Africa.

JERUSALEM'S relations with Accra have been characterized by a mixture of idealism and pragmatism even as they¹ve encapsulated the complexities encountered by Israeli foreign policy in the developing world. Israel¹s goal has been ­ and remains ­ to reach beyond our immediate, antagonistic neighbors in search of friendships and alliances in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Meanwhile, the Arab bloc has endeavored ­ then and now ­ to checkmate our every advance, isolate us from the developing world and the family of nations, their ultimate goal being to extinguish the Zionist enterprise.

I should explain my own interest in this west-coast African country. I first became acquainted with Ghana while in graduate school, through friendships with Ghanaian students at New York University. Before I knew it, I had stumbled upon a vibrant Ghanaian diaspora in New York ­ physicians, scholars, ex-government officials ­ each one fascinating, bright and full of warmth. My friend Norbert, for instance, made it a point to visit my mother during her many hospitalizations as a sign of respect for her age and a token of our friendship. He seldom so much as spoke with his own mother for years on end ­ because her village had no telephone.

So, as we mark 50 years in the Ghana-Israel relationship, I thought it worthwhile to reflect on where our two nations have been, where we are, and what we can realistically expect from each other.

FIRST TO where we¹ve been: It was foreign minister Golda Meir who, in 1957, sent Ehud Avriel to become Israel¹s first ambassador to Ghana, transforming our consulate in Accra into an embassy. Golda herself attended Ghana¹s first anniversary celebrations in 1958, later reminiscing: "I didn¹t have any illusions whatsoever about the fact that [Israel¹s] role [in providing aid to Africa] would inevitably be small, but I was fired by the prospect of going to a part of the world to which we were so new and which was so new to us."

Golda met with Ghana's first president, the pan-African hero Kwame Nkrumah. Taking in the statues and coins bearing his likeness, she concluded that the ³charming² Nkrumah had transformed himself into a "demigod." In her autobiography, Golda wrote that it was impossible not to admire Nkrumah ­ yet she found him less than candid and, in practice, unrealistic:

"He talked about the problems of Africa as though all that mattered was formal independence, and he seemed far less interested in discussing the development of Africa¹s resources, or even how he could raise the standard of life for his people. He talked on one level, and I talked on another. He talked about the glories of freedom, and I talked about education, public health, and the need for Africa to produce its own teachers, technicians and doctors."

Abba Eban, then our ambassador in the US, met Nkrumah in Washington in 1959, and found him "modest." Some years later, Eban wrote in his memoirs, he arrived in Accra and asked where he should go for his first appointment.

"I was informed that my driver would take me down Nkrumah Avenue, past Nkrumah University, and that on reaching Nkrumah Square, he would take me to my appointment with the nation¹s leader, whose title was The Redeemer. From this," Eban concluded, "I learned that modesty was a quality that could easily be overcome by a protracted taste of power."

DESPITE THIS political-cultural divide, Israel and Ghana enjoyed friendly relations. Jerusalem established dozens of development programs in a wide range of areas, and Israelis came to play a prominent role in Ghanaian construction and engineering projects. They helped Ghana set up its Black Star steamship company and trained its police force, air force pilots, doctors, dentists and veterinarians.

The relationship was by no means a one-way street, however. Ghana was the vanguard African nation. And Israel¹s connection with Accra was Jerusalem's gateway to diplomatic relations with 27 states in post-colonial Africa. By 1964, Israel was providing development assistance to dozens of countries on the continent.

For Israel, the African relationship was also psychologically important. The Jewish state wanted an outlet for its idealism ­ call it "Light unto the Nations Syndrome." Helping Africa allowed us to realize our altruistic aspirations. And with premier David Ben-Gurion focused on Israel's security and survival, the Foreign Ministry had substantial leeway in crafting an ambitious (even idealistic) African policy for Israel.

And yet, along every step of the way, Nkrumah was being challenged by Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, father of pan-Arabism, whose political backing Nkrumah needed for his own pan-African aspirations, to explain Ghana's relationship with Israel. Arab countries used their leverage within African forums to push relentlessly for the "right" of Palestinian war refugees to return to their homes on the Israeli side of the 1949 Armistice Lines.

It¹s worth recalling that the nonaligned bloc ­ theoretically, countries that would not ally themselves with either Moscow or Washington ­ had been established at the 1956 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, just before Ghanaian independence. That¹s where Ghana's soon-to-be-president, Nkrumah, met and exchanged ideas with Third World luminaries including Nasser, Nehru, Ho Chi Minh and Zhou Enlai.

SOON AFTER independence, Nkrumah moved Ghana toward becoming a one-party socialist state. His leadership became ever more autocratic, his failed pan-African pretensions forcing the country to spend money it didn¹t have. A country which had become independent amid such high hopes sank into a morass of corruption and wastefulness.

Meanwhile, the more Ghana became "non-aligned," the more it tilted toward the Arabs. The January 1961 Casablanca Conference marked, in the words of University of Haifa political scientist Zach Levey, "the end of the special relationship between Israel and Ghana." Nkrumah signed a resolution promoted by Nasser "singling out Israel as the pillar of imperialism in Africa."

Still, at ambassador Avriel's urging, Israel¹s development aid to Ghana continued essentially until 1973 ­ when, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, Accra joined the rest of black Africa in cravenly bending to Arab desires by breaking ties with Israel.

The rupture was not only a political blow for Israel; it was an emotional one as well. Jerusalem's model for reaching beyond the Arabs using development aid in Africa had been shattered.

GHANA did not fare well on the course Nkrumah set. His regime was overthrown in 1966; another coup followed in 1972, yet another in 1979. Finally, in 1981, army lieutenant Jerry Rawlings seized control and created a stable populist regime. It tried to bring sanity to Ghana¹s socioeconomic affairs, though Rawlings was criticized for his regime's brutality toward political opponents.

To Rawlings's everlasting credit, in 2000 he facilitated a peaceful transition of power and the election of John Kufuor as president. Kufuor was reelected in 2004, in what outside observers attested was a fair campaign.

Sadly, though, given nearly 50 years of chronic political and economic instability, Ghana has suffered a demoralizing brain drain. Far too many of its best and brightest (using their Commonwealth connection) fled to Britain or the United States.

Still, Ghana's fortunes today are, relative to the rest of Africa, on the ascendant, as are the prospects of its 22 million people. Sixty-three percent are Christian; 16% Muslim and 21% traditional (though there is an overlap between those adhering to traditional African beliefs and Pentecostal/charismatic Christians).

Less than 3% of the Ghanaian population is HIV-positive compared with, say, 20% in Zimbabwe, 18% in South Africa, and 7% in Uganda. The country is rich in gold and cocoa; its per-capita income is $2,600, though much of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.

Subsistence agriculture engages 60% of its people; the World Bank puts the Ghanaian poverty level at 37%. And Ghana borrows heavily to stay afloat (38% of GDP is devoted to public debt). The country receives a staggering amount of international aid, but the consensus seems to be that it¹s actually doing good.

IN 1994, Israel and Ghana signed a renewal-of-relations agreement, and in 1996, Ghana reopened its mission in Tel Aviv. So where do Israel-Ghanaian relations stand today?

Ghanaian GBC Radio recently reported that Yossi Gal, the senior deputy director-general for political affairs at the Foreign Ministry, and other Israeli officials were in Accra on March 6 to attend the country's 50th anniversary celebrations.

It turns out that Israel's foreign policy decision-makers are keenly interested in nurturing closer ties with Ghana (and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa). But it strikes me that they have not been able to garner the attention of the political echelon. How else to explain that Israel couldn't muster a cabinet minister to attend the Accra festivities?

Today, Israel has diplomatic ties with 39 of the 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. African officials are regular visitors to Israel, and Nigerian Christians make frequent pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

Overall, Israelis returning from the continent report, with pride, that Israel's image is remarkably good.

Regrettably, however, despite the continent's importance to Israel, we have only nine embassies for all of Africa, making do with roving ambassadors. Thus Israel's ambassador to Ghana, Noam Katz, is actually stationed in Abuja, Nigeria. And despite Israel's appreciation of Ghana¹s weight in our Africa policy, its role as an island of democracy and its path of economic development, there is no Israeli embassy in Accra.

In 2006, trade between Ghana and Israel was relatively modest. Israel imported $6.5 million and exported $13.9 million worth of goods and services. Yet these numbers belie Ghana's true worth to Israel.

WHEN ISRAELIS look at today¹s Ghana, they see a country that is a major, responsible player in the international political arena, a leading contributor to UN peacekeeping efforts worldwide. Ghanaians staff the highest echelons of power in any number of international organizations (Kofi Annan, for instance, recently returned to Ghana after his tenure as UN secretary-general).

Ghana is also an important player in the Economic Community of West African States, as well as sitting on the International Atomic Energy Commission, where it recently voted with the West against Iran. It is currently one of 10 non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, where it has been voting for sanctions against Teheran. And President John Kufuor chairs the 53-member African Union, successor to the Organization of African Unity.

All this may help explain why those who craft Israel's foreign policy want ­ despite an agenda necessarily dominated by the Arab-Israel conflict ­ to give a higher profile to Jerusalem¹s relationship with Africa in general, and Ghana in particular.

Israelis familiar with the issue say that current development aid to Africa is mostly free of any desire for a political quid pro quo. They say our involvement in Africa allows Jerusalem to spotlight the "good Israeli" and tap Judaism's tradition of tikkun olam or "mending the world." Israel's support for Africa goes beyond "doing the right thing." Helping where we can allows our national psyche to feel like we¹re a real country, like we have an existence outside the Arab-Israel conflict.

And while it's unlikely that the scope of our aid to Africa will ever replicate 1950s-60s levels, Israel today administers a variety of training and development projects for Africa, directed by the Foreign Ministry's Center for International Cooperation (Mashav), that do the Jewish state proud.

For example, Israelis have been instrumental in building a trauma center in Ghana¹s second-largest city, Kumasi. Israel¹s private sector is heavily involved in Ghanaian agriculture, dairy farming and fisheries. Solel Boneh and Rolider are renowned names in the Ghanaian construction sector.

TO THE extent that we expect any return from the Ghanaians, Israelis familiar with the country¹s involvement in Africa tell me that Jerusalem would like Accra¹s help in regaining its official observer status at the African Union. (The current list of 47 non-African observers includes such countries as Finland and Iceland.) Since Israel is actually the only country bordering Africa (in Sinai) and has a long history of positive involvement with the continent, it strikes me that Jerusalem does deserve an observer slot. This is a message that Israel has repeatedly, and so far unsuccessfully, sent to Ghana.

What would we do if we got our observer status back? While Israel doesn¹t seem to want a say in African affairs, it views the African Union as a venue for facilitating a dialogue with Africa.

I ASKED some Ghanaians I met what their country expected from its relationship with Israel. Topping the agenda, they said, is for Israel to station an ambassador in Accra. They had thought this would happen when relations were reestablished. In a recent speech, Ghana¹s ambassador to Israel, Nana Owusu-Nsiah, called on Israel to send a resident ambassador to Accra, "for more meaningful bilateral cooperation."

At the very least, the Ghanaians told me, they'd like to see an Israeli consulate in their nation¹s capital. If an Israeli wants to visit Ghana, the applicant needs to spend about an hour filling out forms at Ghana¹s embassy in Ramat Gan. But if a Ghanaian in Accra wants to visit Israel, he needs to travel to Abuja, Nigeria ­ easily a day¹s journey ­ to the nearest Israeli consulate.

Ghanaians would also like to see Israel make it easier for them to work here legally. They asked why the Israeli government won¹t reach a deal with their government to allow, say, 400-500 Ghanaians to work here for a three-year period. Their talents could easily be put to use in our hotel industry and in practical nursing of the elderly. After three years the Ghanaian workers would go home, with badly needed hard currency, and a new batch would replace them.

If you want better relations, the Ghanaians said, why not show some reciprocity?

A number of high-level Ghanaian officials and delegations have been to Israel in recent months, but almost no ranking Israelis have traveled to Ghana. It boggles the mind that when a country like Ghana asks for greater engagement, Israel's political echelon responds with indifference.

Ghanaians I spoke with also expressed frustration that too few Israeli businesspeople were taking advantage of opportunities in Ghana. Granted, they said, Ghana's bureaucracy can be off-putting. On the other hand, numerous incentives, guarantees and tax abatements make doing business in Ghana worthwhile. Ghanaians would welcome private-sector collaboration in any number of spheres, especially electricity, water purification and water distribution.

ISRAEL FINDS itself in a striking position: A country with huge influence in international affairs has repeatedly asked for our government to fulfill its commitment and station an ambassador in its capital, but for reasons beyond my ken, Israel is dragging its heels.

Not that we need more reasons to cozy up to Ghana, but here's another: Ghana plays a unique role for an important segment of the African American community ­ including members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Many black Americans trace their ancestors¹ forced exile out of Africa and into slavery to the Gold Coast. For its part, Ghana maintains a diaspora affairs minister to nurture its special relationship with the black diaspora. Closer ties between Accra and Jerusalem couldn't hurt the efforts of the pro-Israel community in Washington to solidify African American support for Israel.

THESE DAYS Africa still needs to be redeemed ­ not so much in the Herzlian sense, but from poverty, disease and despair. Of course, Israel has its own staggering societal and security problems, and there are those who¹d say that Israel itself is in need of redemption.

Yet myopic and insular policies are unlikely to bring us the deliverance we seek. The more we reach out beyond the confines of the Arab-Israel conflict, the greater the chances of fulfilling our Zionist aspirations of normalcy, and our Jewish aspirations of being an light unto the nations.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Breaking Begin

Peace Now was created to give the impression
that Israel's first non-Labor prime minister
didn't have the nation behind him

This Friday marks the 15th anniversary of the death of Menachem Begin. He died of a broken heart on March 9, 1992, vilified as a warmonger by the Left and cast off by right-wing purists after he traded the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. The purists also berated Begin for his 1978 Camp David offer of five years of limited self-government to the Palestinian Arabs in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, to be followed by final-status negotiations between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating team - a proposal the Arabs rejected.

Begin would have been my hero even if he had never become prime minister, never ordered the destruction of Iraq's nuclear reactor, in June 1981, and never negotiated Israel's first peace treaty with an Arab neighbor.

I admired him for commanding the Irgun during the revolt against the British; and for navigating a course midway between the moderation of the Hagana and the militancy of the Stern group. Perhaps most of all, I respected his reaction to David Ben-Gurion's unforgivable order that the Hagana attack the Irgun arms-ship Altalena: Begin prevented the tragedy from deteriorating into a Jewish civil war.

After 1948, with the system stacked against him, Begin became leader of the loyal opposition. A principled ideologue and fiery orator, he campaigned forcefully in 1952 against Israeli acceptance of financial reparations from Germany - and lost. He had every reason to challenge the legitimacy of a political system in which the allocation of virtually all resources was monopolized by Mapai, but he didn't.

Granted, Begin was no saint. He didn't encourage opposition to his leadership inside Herut. But he was an honest politician, lived modestly and preserved the philosophy of Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

MOST OF THE world had never heard of Menachem Begin until May 1977, when he was elected as Israel's first non-Labor premier. But from that day until he resigned in September 1983, his spirit broken by IDF losses in the war in Lebanon and the 1982 death of his wife and life-long companion Aliza - and ultimately, I would argue, by an unparalleled five-year campaign spearheaded by Peace Now and its allies abroad to force his government to embrace dangerously accommodationist policies toward the Arabs - Begin wasn't given a moment's respite.

Never before had an Israeli premier been so beleaguered, so vilified, so undermined by an alliance of left-wing domestic opponents, the Jewish Diaspora establishment, an implacable White House led by Jimmy Carter and a spiteful international media.

His foes found him "too Jewish," and his idea of trading "peace for peace" a non-starter. Thomas L. Friedman, who reported for The New York Times, first from Beirut and then from Jerusalem during the Begin years, later thus encapsulated the left-wing attitude toward Begin: "What made Begin… dangerous was that his fantasies about power were combined with a self-perception of being a victim… Begin always reminded me of Bernhard Goetz, the white Manhattanite who shot four black youths he thought were about to mug him on the New York subway… [Begin] was Bernhard Goetz with an F-15."

Even mortal threats to Israel had to be belittled because the Left was determined that Israel withdraw from Judea, Samaria and Gaza, captured 10 years earlier in the Six Day War. Failure to do so, leftists convinced themselves, would obliterate the possibility of a rapprochement with the Arabs. No matter how blood-curdling Arab deeds were, the Left discerned intimations of Palestinian moderation which needed to be encouraged by substantive Israeli concessions.

For Begin, this was anathema. First off, he believed Jewish claims to the West Bank and Gaza were rock-solid - far superior to those of Palestinian Arab nationalists. To a media that wouldn't give him the time of day he sought to make the legal, historical and strategic case for calling the territories Jewish. And, anyway, he didn't think sacrificing the West Bank and Gaza would bring peace; he was convinced that the Arabs had not accepted the idea of a sovereign Jewish state anywhere in the land.

WHAT REALLY unified and outraged his opponents - at home and abroad - was Begin's heart-felt embrace of the settlement enterprise. By the time he took office, some 24 communities had been established under Labor governments, according to Lords of the Land by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar (though Gershom Gorenberg, in The Accidental Empire, claims there were nearly 80). Whatever the specifics, the first settlements included Kfar Etzion, Alon Shvut, Ma'aleh Adumim, Kiryat Arba, Elazar and Ofra. In fact, the first yishuv to be re-established after the Six Day War was in Gush Etzion, just south of Jerusalem, in September 1967.

For strategic reasons, as well as to solidify Israel's claim to the capital, Labor governments were eager to build in and around metropolitan Jerusalem and over the Green Line. But Labor only reluctantly allowed Gush Emunim's Orthodox settlers, who were inspired by a combination of theology, messianic zeal and nationalism, to build "non-strategic" settlements.

On May 19, 1977, just after his election, Begin (accompanied by Ariel Sharon) drove to Elon Moreh (Kaddum) outside Nablus. Here is the scene as described by Gorenberg:

"Begin, with a ring of thin black hair and heavy glasses that magnified his eyes, looked exhausted. His two bodyguards could not hold off the crowd. People kissed him, embraced him. Yeshiva students danced around him. After a brief tour, he stood in the square between the mobile homes and took the velvet-covered scroll in one arm, putting the other around Ariel Sharon's shoulder. Four men took the corners of [the] prayer shawl and held it over his head; a band prepared to play.

"Before the ceremony, Begin made a statement to the crowd. 'Soon,' he said, 'there will be many more Elon Morehs.'"

Begin was not going to "tolerate" settlements; he was going to make building them government policy. And this the US administration could not tolerate because it went against bedrock US policy: Israel would trade land for peace, and if there was no West Bank to trade - somewhere down the line when the Arabs would presumably be willing to take it - there would be no possibility of peace.

Nor would the Israeli Left tolerate settling the biblical Jewish heartland. It had a very different vision of Israel - a Western-oriented consumer society on the Mediterranean; the fewer Arabs, the better; the less traditional, the more cosmopolitan, the better.

For the Left it was inconceivable - simply beyond belief - that the Arab-Israel struggle would go on ad infinitum. As humanists, they couldn't abide the notion of an Israel ruling over hostile Arabs or settling land claimed by them. And, anyway, how were all these settlements going to be paid for, and at whose expense?

WHAT FOLLOWED was a scenario of political manipulation aimed at forcing Begin to change his policies or, better yet, returning the government to Labor. It was to be a multi-pronged effort: The White House would signal that the US-Israel relationship was jeopardized by Begin's election. The American Jewish leadership would radically "disassociate" its support for Israel from Begin's West Bank policies. And inside Israel, a campaign of street demonstrations and newspaper ads would create the impression that Begin's ideas were outside the mainstream.

The foreign press portrayed Begin as a former terrorist. Time magazine helpfully instructed its readers to pronounce Begin's name by rhyming it with the Dickens character Fagin. Newsweek labeled Begin a zealot and a fundamentalist.

Carter's White House immediately issued a "Notice to the Press" to set the "historical record" straight. Based on what we now know about Carter, his initial response to Begin's election is telling. You have to remember that in 1977 the Palestinian leadership wasn't even pretending to compromise. The possibility of cutting a West Bank deal with Jordan was still out there. No one was pushing a Palestinian state, and only the Arabs and the extreme Left embraced the "right of return."

But the White House engaged in a psychological campaign against Begin. If he had the hutzpa to claim that the West Bank was disputed, the White House would remind the world that Israel itself was disputed. And so it recalled: "UN General Assembly Resolution 181… [which] provided for the recognition of a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine, and UN GA Resolution 194… [which] endorsed the [Palestinian Arab] right to return to their homes or choose compensation for lost property…"

I'll leave a fuller description of the appalling treatment Begin received at the hands of Carter, the prestige media, and much of the American Jewish leadership for another time. Suffice it to say that the president routinely pressured US Jewish leaders (who anyway were hankering for the good old Labor days) to lobby Begin to change his West Bank policies. The insinuation was that if all they did was echo the Likud platform, the community might be open to regrettable charges of dual loyalty.

IT TOOK about two months, but in July 1977 the shock of Begin's victory galvanized a group of IDF reservists, many of whose leaders happened to be associated with Jerusalem's Van Leer Foundation, to issue an open letter to the new prime minister calling on him to pull Israel back to - what amounted to - the 1949 Armistice Lines.

No thanks to Jimmy Carter, just six months after Begin came to power, in November 1977, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat accepted Begin's invitation to address the Knesset.

Peace Now took the Sadat visit as a call to arms. By January 1978, the group was pressing Begin for a more conciliatory Israeli negotiating approach.

On March 11, 1978, Fatah terrorists infiltrating by sea from Lebanon carried out what became known as the coastal road massacre. They murdered 35 Israelis and wounded another 100. Begin ordered Operation Litani to go after PLO strongholds in Fatah-controlled southern Lebanon.

None of this weakened Peace Now's resolve. By April 1, 1978, it was able to muster a rally of some 20,000 supporters in Tel Aviv. From then on, demonstrations - outside his office, home, and along the highway to the airport - would be coordinated every time Begin went to Washington to see Carter.

Peace Now took an increasingly confrontational approach to the settlement enterprise. Activists blocked roads to communities; one group marched on the Jewish enclave in Hebron. Yuval Neriya, one of Peace Now's founders, explained: "Our idea was to show the prime minister that he did not have the nation behind him when he refused to negotiate [with Sadat and Carter] over Judea and Samaria to get peace."

Tzali Reshef, another movement founder, reiterated that Peace Now opposed retention of the West Bank and Gaza; opposed the confiscation of West Bank land (whether private or not); and opposed "on moral grounds"… "colonization [which] would lead to apartheid."

Israel's resources, Reshef argued, should be invested inside the Green Line, not on settlements.

Meanwhile, in the Diaspora, in April 1978, Peace Now had captured the imagination of 37 famous American Jews, who signed a letter supporting the Israeli activists. They wanted the world to know that they too opposed a Jewish presence in the West Bank and Gaza, and urged Begin to show greater "flexibility" in negotiating with Sadat. The New York Times was instrumental in playing up the letter, putting the story on page one.

Signatories included the No. 2 man in the Reform movement, Albert Vorspan (No. 1 was Rabbi Alexander Schindler, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations); political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset; Ira Silverman of the American Jewish Committee; Saul Bellow, the Nobel Prize laureate; literary editor Leon Wieseltier; Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a former chair of the Presidents Conference; and professor Leonard Fein of Brandeis.

A LENGTHY and difficult negotiating process - complicated by Palestinian intransigence - between Cairo, Jerusalem and Washington finally culminated in the March 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

The signing of the treaty took some of the steam out of Peace Now, though it did manage a few big rallies. Behind the scenes, however, it was very much in operation. For instance, by 1981 activists Yuli Tamir and David Zucker broke new ground by meeting with Yasser Arafat's liaison to the Israeli peace camp, Issam Sartawi, in Austria.

But Peace Now didn't really take off again - and become the powerhouse it is today, openly funded by a host of foundations and foreign governments - until the outbreak of the June 1982 Lebanon War.

Operation Peace for Galilee, as that war was first called, was not a war of necessity, whatever its arguable merits. Janet Aviad, who had been a Peace Now leader, told me:

"There was an atmosphere in Israel that one does not dissent, especially during a war. We had to break those taboos, and it was our responsibility to do it. It was a very hard decision. Peace Now didn't go out during the first days of the war. It took three weeks to get people to realize that there was no choice."

The Left thus broke the taboo against holding anti-government rallies during wartime.

The media embraced the Peace Now complaint against Begin full-throttle. Leading the pack was The New York Times, which reported growing "dissent" within the US Jewish community. Meanwhile, its magazine fomented the "dissent" with, for instance, a cover story by Amos Oz entitled "Has Israel Altered its Vision?"

Nevertheless, the government managed to hold firm against extraordinary pressures until it expelled Arafat from Lebanon in September 1982.

AND THEN all hell broke loose. Israel's ally, the Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated on September 14, 1982, in a massive explosion at his Beirut headquarters. In bloody retribution, on September 16-17, his Christian Arab militia massacred many hundreds of Palestinian Arabs in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla.

No Israeli soldiers were involved, nor were any even aware of what was going on. Peace Now, however, argued that the slaughter could not have happened absent IDF "sponsorship" - after all, Israel was in military control of the area.

Of course, this begged the question of why Israeli "military control" hadn't saved Gemayel from assassination in the first place.

But it was Peace Now's big moment. It organized a gigantic Saturday-night rally on September 25, 1982, in Tel Aviv, which drew over 250,000 anguished Israelis. Begin's Lebanon policies were in shambles.

Peace Now harassed Begin without letup. Protesters stood outside his windows with signs calling him a killer; others hoisted the tally of IDF soldiers killed in action. Then, on February 11, 1983, as Peace Now was holding yet another march through a hostile Jerusalem heading for the government compound near the Knesset, where Begin's dispirited cabinet was meeting to agonize over the Kahan Commission report, tragedy struck again.

As the rally was breaking up, a troubled man, a right-winger named Yona Avrushmi, lobbed a grenade; it killed 33-year-old Emil Grunzweig, a Van Leer Foundation staffer.

In denouncing the killing, Begin was grief-stricken: "God forbid that we should go the way of heinous violence," he mourned. "God forbid."Begin would hold on just seven months longer.

LOOKING BACK all these years later, neither Begin nor Peace Now got the Israel they wanted. In the very year Emil Grunzweig was killed, and despite all of Peace Now's marches, all the newspaper ads and all the foreign support, construction began on the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev - over the Green Line. Renovation of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City was also completed.

Peace Now was never able to mainstream its contention that Israelis could live securely within the - more or less - 1949 armistice lines, or that the Palestinians had genuinely accepted the idea of Jewish sovereignty within a truncated Israel.

Begin, for his part, was never able to sell Israelis - especially the non-Orthodox majority - on the idea that the settlement enterprise was a practical answer to Israel's West Bank dilemma.

We'll never know how things would have played out had Begin's strategy of marginalizing the PLO's intransigent external leadership not been undermined.

What if Begin's idea for genuine Palestinian autonomy, tantamount to nation-building, had been widely embraced by Israel's Left and the international community? What if autonomy had been nurtured by the resources the US and EU subsequently channeled into the Palestinian Authority? Wouldn't West Bankers and Gazans have been better off? With a political infrastructure and a history of competent self-government, wouldn't Palestinian demands for statehood today be more viable?

Begin was never given a chance, so we'll never know.

My Archive