Eulogy: Yossi Sarid 1940-2015

A politician who set standards for a principled and incorruptible politics.

Yossi Sarid meets Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, in 1998 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Yossi Sarid meets Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, in 1998
(photo credit: REUTERS)
YOSSI SARID, who died on December 4, was one of Israel’s most outstanding parliamentarians and one of the first from the mainstream of Israeli politics to press for accommodation with the Palestinians.
A brilliant speaker who captivated the Knesset with his rich Hebrew, acerbic wit and Talmudic like argumentation, Sarid was a master at reducing opponents’ positions ad absurdum. No one wanted to be on the wrong side of his sharply ironic tongue.
Sarid began his political career in Mapai, the precursor of the current Labor party, as party spokesman, adviser to the powerful finance minister Pinhas Sapir and prime minister Levi Eshkol.
Sarid in the 1960s and 70s was clearly a young man going places.
I first met Yossi in 1981, when as the newly elected leader of the small Sheli party I was grappling with ways to turn the Israeli left into more than an extra-parliamentary footnote. Despite the fact that he was already a charismatic, standout Knesset member, he let me do the talking.
Three years later, he left Labor and joined Ratz, the small citizens’ rights movement and precursor of Meretz. He came to us from Mapai, a powerhouse in Israeli politics, well aware of what he was giving up. But he left on principle, on his own and made no attempt to form a camp.
It seemed like he was gambling on his political future. But it wasn’t really a gamble. He knew he had what it takes to succeed anywhere.
We never quarreled or competed with each other, even though we were of the same generation. He was always the senior figure, the teacher and the guide. It was only natural that he succeeded Shulamit Aloni as Meretz leader in 1996. I will never forget the night of celebration in June 1999 when under Yossi we won 10 Knesset seats and became a significant factor in the government led by Labor’s Ehud Barak.
Yossi was a rare combination of smart politician and visionary leader. He understood the march of history. When he spoke of peace it was not only as a moral imperative or profound yearning, but as a means of saving Israel from enormous dangers lurking in the future. He put his life on the line to press for that farsighted goal.
On the socio-economic front, he realized that if the gaps between rich and poor continue to widen, Israeli society as a whole would collapse. But he also had a deep regard for social justice per se. He couldn’t bear to see people suffering from want or humiliation. It often caused him to double up, his face contorted in pain.
Although Yossi was not shy and knew his worth, he was fundamentally humble and lived modestly. At a time when other politicians were doing all kinds of things for themselves, their families and their friends, he never did.
He was an extremely sharp politician. We would sit in meetings and before the others had even grasped the essentials, he already understood everything in depth, the full implications, what needed to be done and how precisely to formulate the proposed course of action or reaction.
As education minister in Barak’s short-lived government he won plaudits as someone who understood the needs of the teachers and the schools. He was also someone who believed in setting an example, and went to teach school in the north and later in the south when they came under rocket attack.
He was the earliest critic of the 1982 Lebanon War, after which he refused to shake then chief of staff Rafael Eitan’s hand. Always true to himself, Sarid, who had pushed for decades for peace with the Palestinians, had no hesitation in denouncing Yasser Arafat when he thought the PLO leader was lying.
Sarid’s great intelligence and rhetorical gifts were also expressed in an impressive body of poetry and journalism.
A secular universalist, he was reviled on the right and by the Haredim, and clashed sharply with Shas spiritual leader, Ovadia Yosef. He was buried in a secular cemetery in Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha.
Yossi set standards for a principled and incorruptible politics.
He showed how it was possible to play political hardball and remain a mensch.
Ran Cohen, a leading member of Meretz and a former minister of trade and industry, was one of Sarid’s closest associates.