One on One: Who's Left?

A year since his retirement from politics, former Meretz leader Yossi Sarid is busier than ever.

yossi sarid 298.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
yossi sarid 298.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'My wife always used to ask me, 'How is it that others don't understand what you understand, when it's so clear?'" says retired peace warrior Yossi Sarid in the rich, lyrical Hebrew for which he is well-known. This is in response to the question of whether he is surprised by the shift in the rhetoric, if not ideology, of former hawk Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "Not at all," he asserts with customary self-assuredness. Sarid is never surprised when others come to see things the way he does; he is only surprised when they don't. Sarid, 66, had been closely connected to Olmert during the 1970s, when the two young Knesset members from opposite sides of the political spectrum - he a member of Labor and Olmert of Likud - joined forces to combat corruption in soccer (ironically, perhaps, one of many issues that have resurfaced of late). Today, though no longer as politically distinguishable as each would like to think, the two are separated by an even wider divide - with Olmert heading the government, and Sarid "completely disengaged" from the Knesset, where he spent 33 years of his life. Looking from the outside in, Sarid is as cynically critical of government policy as ever, albeit from behind lectern and keyboard, rather than podium. Which to his great dismay, he says wryly, has made his retirement anything but a vacation. On the contrary, the pundit-turned-pol-turned-pundit says the one luxury he had looked forward to having - free time - is precisely what he now lacks. Between writing a regular column for Haaretz and an autobiography - his third book in the last two years, chairing the award committee for the Pratt Prize for environmental journalism and, most recently, becoming the chairman of the committee to determine judges' salaries, as well as many other commitments, Sarid claims he wishes he knew what it was like to be bored occasionally. Not that he was exactly twiddling his thumbs up until now. Sarid, who holds a master's degree in political science from New York's New School for Social Research, began his career as former prime minister Levi Eshkol's media aide. He was first elected to the (eighth) Knesset in 1973, on the Labor ticket. He left Labor in 1984, in protest against its becoming part of a national unity government, and joined Shulamit Aloni's Ratz Party. In 1992, Ratz merged with Shinui and Mapam to form Meretz. Four years later, Sarid challenged Aloni for the party's leadership and won. In 1999, he became education minister under Ehud Barak, who persuaded him to join the government, in spite of his vow not to sit with Shas. His justification: the need to promote the peace process. This backfired in 2000 when, faced with being forced to accept a Shas member as his deputy, Meretz quit the coalition. In the 2003 elections, Meretz suffered a humiliating defeat, causing Sarid to resign from its leadership, though he remained in the Knesset and served on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Right before the 2005 elections, Sarid announced his intention to leave politics. When the election results dealt Meretz - now headed by Yossi Beilin - an even heavier blow than before, Sarid's parting words were that it no longer need exist separately from Labor. Since then, his main platform has been in print. Which hasn't made him any less prone to controversy. In fact, one of his columns got him smacked with a NIS 45 million libel suit from Arkadi Gaydamak, over whose dealings and billions Sarid cast aspersions. "Before hearing the amount, this made me nervous," Sarid admits. "But when I discovered the sum, I calmed right down. Had it been NIS 45,000, it would have been cause for concern. But NIS 45 million?" In a two-hour interview earlier this month at his modest apartment in Tel Aviv's Tochnit Lamed neighborhood, Sarid talks about his aversion to corruption, occupation and war, attributing all of Israel's ills to its focus on security. It's been a year since you retired. Much has happened in the country since then. Do you miss it? What's to miss? Who's to miss? I think a person misses something when he leaves and doesn't leave - when, instead of severing all ties to something, he leaves a few remaining ones. I have so completely disengaged that I hadn't even stepped foot in the Knesset until today, when I had to be there to attend a meeting. What I can say is that every morning I wake up and am satisfied with my lot. But, I suppose that in order not to miss what one had, one has to build a new life. Which is what I did. Since freeing myself up, I've become very busy. In this respect, I may have made a mistake, because when I retired, I thought that at least I'd have some free time. [Here, he produces a printout of the column he is about to send off to Haaretz.] I wrote three items in this week's column: One of them is on Borat - Sacha Baron Cohen - and how smart the Kazakhstanis have been in their response to the movie. Soon, they'll be making him an honorary citizen. I suggested that the Kazakhstanis either have more self-confidence or more brains than the Israelis, because imagine what would have happened had the movie been about Israel. It would have caused an international scandal, with calls for boycotts. Then I wrote that we're not Kazakhstan, nor are we Finland, and the only common denominator between us and the Finns is the increasing number of blondes. Why did I bring up Finland? Because this week a piece appeared about why the education system in Finland is so successful and why Finland places first in all the international ratings in almost all subjects. I finish my item as follows: "After Hurricane Livnat, which destroyed and uprooted, a peculiar quiet now prevails in our education system... the impression is that the waters are stagnant and that there is no wind in the sails. The cuts were minimized, but not cancelled... That's not the way to shorten the distance between Israel and Finland. About eight months have passed since the appointment of Yuli Tamir as education minister. Time is passing, and there's much work to be done, and the rehabilitation has not yet begun. Make haste, sister, make haste; for seldom is one elected here twice to the same post." Pretty critical of an ally. Which leads to the question: As someone who has spent his whole career dreaming of and working toward peace with the Palestinians, how do you explain your own personal difficulty in "making peace" with like-minded people - [Meretz founder former education minister] Shulamit Aloni, for example, or [Meretz leader] Yossi Beilin? I got along with them perfectly well. Maybe they didn't get along with me. I never had complaints against Shulamit Aloni or Yossi Beilin. Except - now that I think of it - a few months ago, before the elections, when he ate breakfast with Avigdor Lieberman and the two of them went into a virtual frenzy of mutual discovery. Beilin even called Lieberman an incredibly impressive person. I thought this rather peculiar. I wrote something critical about this. Had I been writing about someone other than Beilin, however, I would have written it much more forcefully. Had Beilin said the same things about Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas or Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, how would you have responded? That's a false comparison. There is a big difference between my attitude toward ill-behaved Jews and others. Why? Because I'm a Jew, and I feel responsible for the behavior of other Jews. A Jewish terrorist angers and frightens me much more than an Arab terrorist does. An Arab terrorist is my enemy. He's on one side and I'm on the other. Nothing connects us. But when the terrorist is a Jew, I sometimes get the almost physical sensation that he is holding my hand and pulling me down with him into the abyss. I'll give you an example. What do I care whether the PA regime is corrupt or not? Yet I care very much about whether the Israeli political system is corrupt, because it's mine. Are you saying that political systems in the world have no influence on each other? Of course they do. Unfortunately - as the American endeavor in Iraq proves - all the attempts to impose our concepts of democracy on other nations not only don't ameliorate the situation, they make it worse. I assume that even [US President George W.] Bush privately regrets his democracy [in the Middle East] dream. I'm not the world's traffic cop; nor is Bush. We're neither directing traffic nor shaping the world in our image. Not that I wouldn't be happy if the regimes surrounding us were democratic. If Syria had a Finnish regime, I'd be in favor of it. But Syria isn't Finland, just as Israel isn't. And I don't think that any one of us can afford to wait until Syria is Finland. In the period leading up to World War II, would you also have said that you're not the world's traffic cop - or that you don't care whether other countries have bad regimes or not? There's a very big difference [between then and now]. In the first place, Germany attacked the world. At the moment, I'm reviewing an amazing book by historian Richard Overy [The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia (2004)], which deals with a question that has always preoccupied me. What would have happened had Hitler not breached the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact? Hitler and Stalin might very well have conquered Europe and divided it between them. So maybe Hitler actually did Stalin a favor. Furthermore, anyone who really wanted to know what was going on - even before September 1, 1939 - knew. In other words, there wasn't some theoretical situation about which Washington or London or Paris had to sit around analyzing its potentially imminent repercussions. Something actually happened. What about September 11, 2001? Didn't that actually happen? That's a bit of a vulgar comparison. An awful thing happened on 9/11, and the US should have taken all the appropriate measures - ones they should have yet didn't take prior to the event - to prevent such attacks. But, if you're going to take action, you have to make sure that it ultimately benefits you. Take the war in Iraq, for example. Most wars are stupid, but this is the stupidest war of the last several decades, because it is achieving precisely the opposite of its stated goals. This isn't only true of Iraq, by the way. Look at the developments in Afghanistan. The point is that no one has helped al-Qaida and other Middle Eastern fanatics as much as Bush has. How, then, can the victims of the Middle Eastern fanatics - i.e. the Iraqi and Iranian people, or the Palestinians - be helped? First of all, the Palestinians are victims of Israel. What if Israel weren't here? What do you mean, if we weren't here? We're here! [But if hypothetically we weren't], it would be their own problem. Each people has to manage on its own. That's the thing about peoples and nations: They don't want favors from anyone. You can explain to them that their situation - let's say, under occupation - isn't so bad; that it's even slightly improved, in terms of income per person. But that's of no interest to them. What they want is to be free. Not by proxy; not via Israel; not via Bush nor via [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. They want to be independent. After achieving independence, each people designs its own destiny according to its ability. Which is nobody else's business. And anyone who tries to interfere - especially through occupation, de facto or de jure - not only doesn't rescue the people in question, but kills itself in the process, and plays into the hands of the fanatics. How do you explain it, then, that 60 percent of the Iranian people are hoping Bush will intervene in their country the way he has done in Iraq? Who told you that fairy tale? Israel Radio Farsi broadcaster Menashe Amir. Ah, Menashe Amir, well... That's what was said about Iraq - that 100% of the Iraqis, not 60%, expected salvation from Bush. In the beginning, it really started out that way. It always does. With rice thrown at the soldiers - and flowers. That's how IDF soldiers were greeted in Lebanon [in 1982]. But anyone who looks beyond the tip of his own nose knows what the next stage will bring. Furthermore, I'm really sure [he says sarcastically] that the Iranians wait with baited breath every day just to hear Menashe Amir's broadcasts from Israel... Nobody listens to those broadcasts. And if they do, they listen they way one listens to propaganda. Look, in Iran I'm sure there are many dissatisfied people. Israel, too, has many dissatisfied people. You see no difference between the dissatisfaction of Iranians and that of Israelis? No. In fact, I'm sure the morale in Iran is higher than it is in Israel right now. Not that I'm an expert. In any case, we've become familiar with what the experts have to say. They haven't proven themselves. Until the Soviet Union fell, there wasn't a single expert who predicted it. So, with all due respect to experts, I insist on using my own powers of analysis and judgment. What do your own powers of analysis and judgment tell you is going on between Israel and the Palestinians right now? I don't really know. Look, they're tough customers. But then, who isn't? Regardless, I recommend that Israel stop the occupation for its own interest. Suppose, all of a sudden, the Palestinians were to come to us and say, "Hey, guys, we've been considering the issue, and we have decided to give you the territories as a gift. We have no more demands. We don't want the land; we don't want a state. We want nothing." Do you accept this gift? I don't. But we've seen the results of territorial withdrawals. [Exasperated] We've also seen the results of a lack of withdrawals. People like to point to Sderot and say, "You see what happens [when you withdraw from Gaza]?" But what are they talking about? That was all going on before the withdrawal. The difference is that at least now there aren't Jews there to shoot at! Not only that. The very idea of putting 10,000 Jews into 300 square kilometers, the most densely populated area in the world, over approximately 40% of the land and 60% of the water is unthinkable. That's why it should have been stopped without any connection to anything else! Kassams or no. Anyway, Kassams were flying before the withdrawal. There were even worse days then than there are now. But memories are short. Speaking of short memories, what about the events prior to 1967? Before 1967, everything was great. Something happened, though, didn't it? What happened? The Six Day War. The Six Day War was a catastrophe - the greatest mistake of the Zionist endeavor. What, after all, was going on then? The straits [of Tiran] were closed. Let's face it - that didn't constitute an existential threat. But even if it did - even if the decision-makers considered the closing of the straits a casus belli (which I don't think it was) - and that certain threats had to be thwarted, from Egypt, Jordan and Syria, OK. But why stay there? Indeed, even the government understood that we didn't have to stay, and in the immediate aftermath of the war, there was a decision to exit the territories. This decision was subsequently reversed. It's not that the Arabs didn't play their own part in this, with the Khartoum Convention and so forth. But I'm not talking about that; I'm talking about Israel's interests. Which is why I'd refuse being an occupier. Even from a security and defense perspective, it's easier to defend Israel from the '67 borders - with adjustments here and there. The '67 borders, from a political, security and moral perspective, and from the point of view of being able finally to take care of our own internal problems, are what we need. That's why I say that the Six Day War was a catastrophe. You do not agree, then, with Abba Eban, who called them the "borders of Auschwitz." I don't think Abba Eban agreed with himself on that point. It was a pretty paraphrase for the purpose of oratory before the UN, at which he excelled. In any case, the passage of time is relevant here. I mean, 30-40 years ago, when we [in the Left] raised the issue of a Palestinian state, everyone went crazy. Today, it's no longer a question of whether there will be a Palestinian state, but whether it should be demilitarized or not, and what the nature of our relations with it will be. Recently, I heard former Foreign Ministry director-general Shlomo Avineri being interviewed on the radio. He said that he had reviewed the protocols of cabinet meetings before and after 1967. What they revealed was what he had suspected: that before '67, though this country may not have been paradise, it came close compared to what it is today. Wonder of wonders! Before '67, Israeli governments discussed issues such as education, health and absorbing aliya. After '67, they dealt with nothing other than security, security and security. Is it any wonder, then, that Israel has been deteriorating in almost every realm - that the "People of the Book" have become mediocre at best, and ignoramuses at worst? One could argue that it is precisely because Israel has to ensure its survival as a state before it can be freed up to deal with the other issues. A country that is in continual danger of extinction may have no choice. When has Israel ever been in danger of extinction? In the 10 years between '57 and '67, there were about 80 deaths [from terrorism] in Israel. That's not good; I'm against 80 deaths; I'm against eight deaths; I'm against a single death. But compared to today, that period was generally very good. The country developed dramatically, with genuinely impressive achievements. The [external] threat was a threat, but at much lower levels than it is today. Anyone who claims that since 1967, there has been any improvement here whatsoever is inaccurate at best, and not truthful at worst. That ours isn't the best neighborhood, well, what can you do? I could complain to our forefathers and mothers - like Moses - but what good would that do? I understand that they were in Egypt and couldn't get to Switzerland. But I love this country, and unlike the cases of many of my peers, my children are all here to stay. In the 1970s, you and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert used to give joint lectures. What was that about? That was mainly connected to the work we did together to tackle corruption in soccer. We froze the leagues. It was very interesting. [This interview took place before the current soccer scandal.] Were the two of you friends? We were colleagues. How do you view him today? As someone who underwent an ideological shift? Judging by his own words, he certainly did. If we were to ask whether Yossi Sarid moved closer to Ehud Olmert in his worldview, or whether Ehud Olmert moved closer to Yossi Sarid, what would the answer be? Ehud Olmert to Yossi Sarid. That's right - in the meantime, anyway, going by what he says. And words mean something, after all. As speech has its own dynamic. Does that surprise you about him? Not at all. No person - even if he happens to be the prime minister - who arrives at those conclusions surprises me. It surprises me when they don't. My wife always used to ask me, "How is it that others don't understand what you understand, when it's so clear?" I never had an answer to that question. So, you are not among those who attribute cynical motives to former prime minister Ariel Sharon's "change of heart"? Motives don't interest me. What interests me is the bottom line. The fact that both Sharon and Olmert don't exactly epitomize "clean hands" is nothing new to me. I said so for years - another thing nobody was particularly interested in hearing. Once [MK] Zvi Hendel [NU-NRP] - whose room in the Knesset was across from mine - said to me, "You know what our [the Right's] worst mistake was? For years, you [on the Left] said that Sharon was a swindler and an opportunist. But then he served our purposes, so we didn't want to see it. We didn't want to believe you. That was our biggest mistake." Yet, you just said that motives don't interest you - that what interests you is the bottom line. Does it matter or not matter whether someone is corrupt, if he is serving your interests? Of course it matters. If someone is corrupt, he's got to go home. But, the fact that I thought that someone should go home helped me? It didn't help me. I'm the one who went home. They remained. The public wants those corrupt [politicians]. As long as the public is interested in having its leaders corrupt, at least let those leaders do the right thing. But the "etrog" concept is completely unacceptable to me. [David] Ben-Gurion said, "I don't know what the people want; I know what's best for the people." That's why I'm a follower of Ben-Gurion's. If public opinion had been important to me, I would have been prime minister.