Some years ago, Ehud Barak said, "If I were a Palestinian at the right age, I would have joined one of the terrorist organizations at a certain stage."
It was a rare hint of personal warmth in a man whose military career featured a leading role freeing hostages in an early airplane hijacking, and later head of the IDF General Staff. He entered politics when he retired from the military, and has served as Interior Minister, Foreign Minister, Defense Minister, and Prime Minister.
As Prime Minister he made one of the most forthcoming offers to Palestinians, and ordered a unilateral withdrawal of the IDF from Lebanon. He absorbed major criticism from political allies and adversaries for the "if I was born a Palestinian" comment. Most recently, as Defense Minister, he has urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to be more forthcoming in negotiations, charged several of his Labor Party colleagues in the Knesset for being too much inclined to accept Palestinian demands, and led about half the MKs from the Labor Party to a new entity called Independence.
We could label Barak a waverer, a centrist, or a man who is stubbornly insistent on trying to reach an agreement, despite occasional comments that the Palestinians are impossible partners. As such, he represents the conundrum of the Israeli center. One can conclude that he wants to make a deal, but is kept from being as generous as he might want by an Israeli right (religious and secular) that is intensely distrustful of Palestinians and is more popular than he, as well as by Palestinians who are at least as far from compromise as the Israeli right.
The Palestinian leadership has created what might only be a cosmetic alliance between its secular and Islamic factions, seemingly in preparation for an UN vote in September that will bestow an upgraded recognition of a state. The secular Palestinian leadership refuses to negotiate with an Israeli government headed by Binyamin Netanyahu, and the Israeli government refuses to deal with a Palestinian regime that includes parties committed to armed conflict against Israel''s existence. Both the secular and Islamic voices are sticking with the traditional insistence on a right of return for what they call Palestinian refugees, which is an assured deal breaker for any but the smallest slice of Israelis.
Palestinians are the weaker party and perennial losers in this conflict, and have not done enough to persuade Israelis to act against the most die hard and distrustful among us.
Cultivating a refugee mindset among multiple generations is a prime candidate for the Palestinians'' worst move. They have enough weight in international politics to have won their own UN agency (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, UNRWA), and refugee status for the original refugees'' children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and subsequent offspring to the end of time. Other refugee groups deal with a comprehensive UN agency (UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR) that grants refugee status only to the people who left home for one or another recognized reason.
A lack of realism in Palestinian politics, reinforced by a similar fault among Muslim countries urging them to continue on their path, has kept the Palestinians from accepting what the vast majority of Israelis have viewed as decent compromises. Now they are trying for a home run in the United Nations rather than going through the unpleasant tasks of giving as well as taking in negotiations.
I do not admire Prime Minister Netanyahu''s body language, smirk, and his reputation. I would prefer that he put more emphasis on the Palestinians'' lack of willingness to compromise, and speak with less finality about his own firm position. Yet I cannot say a change in his style would do anything more than please me.
Personality and the arguments made by individuals count for a lot less in international relations than national interests. As a quote popularly attributed to Harry Truman says, "If you want a friend in this town, buy a dog." Politics in high places does not involve friendship or style, but confrontations of demands and capacities.
As I write this, we are about half way through the annual celebration of Nakba. So far there is one dead Palestinian in Jerusalem, one dead Jew in Tel Aviv, several dead among individuals trying to enter Israel from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza, lots of stones to clean from the roads near Arab neighborhoods, and people being treated for injuries. Yesterday the police managed to arrest a few of the stone throwers and keep things confined with non-lethal measures of crowd control, until someone fired a pistol that killed a Palestinian teenager. His father says he was a good boy and did not demonstrate. Most activists from stone throwers to suicide bombers are described like that by family and friends. The shot may have come from a Jewish settler who was nearby, or from a Palestinian wanting to heat things up. Whoever did it, the death produced a funeral procession of thousands, more stone throwing and work for the police.
This morning an Arab truck driver went on a rampage in Tel Aviv. He killed one pedestrian, damaged several vehicles and injured passersby until he ran into a bus heavier than his truck. He claimed it was all an accident. The judicial process will do its work. If found guilty, the driver is likely to die some years from now as an old man in an Israeli prison.
This is not a time to visit the gas station on the border between French Hill and Isaweea. We have been kept awake by the sounds of explosions from the Isaweea side of that gas station, and a police helicopter above us and them.
Still scheduled is a flotilla intent on reaching Gaza, and the September meeting of the UN General Assembly.
Longer range, the greater power of Israel should keep Palestinians at bay, with their state not much more than an empty gesture.
People like Ehud Barak, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the rest of us in the wide center will hope for Palestinian leaders more willing to compromise than any we have seen in 63 years. My e-mail is open for anyone who is optimistic.[email protected]