Politics: Replacement ideology

Ephraim Sneh is building a new party that he hopes will give him a platform for pushing for peace.

October 23, 2008 22:13
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sneh aj 224.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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It is rare for an Israeli politician to publicly admit his shortcomings and acknowledge that things are not going well for him. That's why what Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak told Army Radio's Razi Barka'i in an interview on Sunday morning cannot be taken too lightly. Barak, who in the past downplayed his low standing in the polls, acknowledged for the first time that he was not a serious candidate for prime minister. "I am aware of my situation and I plead guilty," Barak said. "I don't have the necessary political backing to be prime minister. So I decided to be the most senior partner in Tzipi Livni's government, and that's what I will do if such a government is indeed formed." What Barak was doing in the interview was facing reality. The top job he can obtain right now is defense minister in Livni's government, and unless things change dramatically, the highest-ranking position he can achieve after the next general election is again defense minister. And he is fine with that. When Barak returned to politics in January 2007 with a fax to Labor secretary-general Eitan Cabel, he wrote about how much he was looking forward to healing the country's security situation after the Second Lebanon War. He didn't say he was eager to engage in politics, which he sees as an annoying obstacle on the way to doing what he believes he is best at: making the country more secure. But while Barak has become satisfied with his standing, the opponents who faced off against him in the May 2007 primary are getting more frustrated. Minister-without-Portfolio Ami Ayalon and MKs Amir Peretz and Ophir Paz-Pines are just waiting for their chance to pounce on Barak and will soon come out against him. Then there are the MKs who left completely. Ephraim Sneh and Danny Yatom both quit the Knesset, and Sneh quit Labor. While Yatom has permanently left the limelight, Sneh has quietly been building up the infrastructure of Israel Hazaka (Israel is strong), a new party that could capitalize on Labor's downfall in the polls. A poll taken by Labor's American political consultant Stanley Greenberg predicted that, under Barak's leadership, Labor could fall from its current 19 seats to as low as eight, from the second- to the fifth-largest party. While most of those available mandates are expected to be gobbled up by the Likud and Kadima, there may be room on the political map for a party that aims to be what Labor once was when it was the country's ruling party - and that's the difficult challenge Sneh has set for himself. ISRAEL HAZAKA recently received approval from the party registrar to run. It then published a comprehensive platform - answering problems facing the country on 20 issues - that was written by a team of experts in their fields, and revealed it in a large opening rally with its founding members. It was important for Sneh to decide his party's ideological direction before dealing with shallower issues like who its candidates would be and how to get elected. "On the political map, we are where Labor was in 1995, when Yitzhak Rabin was its leader," Sneh says. "Where is Labor now? I don't know. That's why we started a new party. It's the new home for the Israeli center-left, which doesn't have a home. It's the new Labor Party." Asked if he was worried about not passing the minimum threshold for a party to make it into the Knesset, Sneh says confidently that it is "not a possibility," especially at a time when there are so many unaffiliated voters available. Sneh has not tried to recruit current politicians to Israel Hazaka, but he has attracted many businessmen, artists, former IDF officers, professors and doctors, as well as former MKs Erella Golan, Michael Bar-Zohar and Ra'anan Naim. The party's Knesset candidates will be selected in a primary open to the general public, after a committee decides who should be eligible to run, based on what they have done for the country. THE FOUR main issues Sneh says his party will deal with are: ending the Palestinian conflict, preparing for a victory in the next round with Iran and its proxies, reviving the welfare state and improving the environment. Sneh says the latter two issues often get ignored, due to the prominence of the first two. On the diplomatic issue, Sneh believes the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian moderate positions is still bridgeable, but that if both sides are not given a view of a horizon in which their lives have improved, it will be difficult for moderates to remain in power and an opportunity will be missed. "The basis of a trade-off is well-known," Sneh says. "Every side has to give up one national ethos. The refugees of Hasan Bek know they're not coming back to the parking lot of the David Intercontinental Hotel; the people of Gemoussin know they're not coming back to the land across the street from Akirov Towers in Tel Aviv; and Israelis realize that not allowing 270,000 Palestinians to visit Israel is not keeping Jerusalem undivided. These are truths that both sides know and don't say." Sneh, who has been talking to Palestinian leaders uninterrupted for 23 years, says he is confident they will be willing to give up the return of refugees to the country's final borders when a deal is implemented. On the security issue, Sneh has been Israel's most candid politician about the need to confront Iran, since his warning that "sometimes the last resort is the only resort" - in a November 2006 interview with The Jerusalem Post when he was deputy defense minister - resulted in an Iranian complaint to the United Nations Security Council. Sneh still speaks openly about the subject in a way that many politicians are afraid to do, even in private conversations. He also took action by voting against the 2008 state budget, because he believes that there was not enough allocated to allow the handling of the Iranian threat. "The first round of the war with Iran and its proxies was the rockets from Gaza," Sneh says. "The second was the Second Lebanon War. The third is almost inevitable." He disagrees with the prevailing notions that diplomatic efforts are enough to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and that Israel must let other countries lead the way in those efforts. "Diplomacy won't work," Sneh says. "The world must understand that if there are no real sanctions, Israel is prepared to take action. We have to be ready. I don't advocate military action. We have to do everything possible to avoid it, but if the international community fails to stop it, as a last resort, we should seriously consider this option, and that's why we have to be prepared. If we don't have this option seriously on the table, no one will take us seriously." He says that the defensive systems that the US recently gave Israel to prepare for a possible Iranian attack are not a substitute for offensive capacity, and should not be used as a pretext not to prepare a proper answer for Iran. "It's a cliché that we shouldn't be at the forefront, but we are number one on the hit list," he says. "We are in the late 1930s. The decision of what to do must be taken in '09, because they are so close to reaching the threshold. A nuclear Iran is incompatible with life for the Jewish state. From 1993, I've been warning that we will be alone against this threat. In the end, the Jews are always alone against evil."

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