INTERVIEW: 'We must combine activism with faith'

MK Benny Elon is dusts off his peace plan while continuing to cultivate ties with pro-Israel Christians.

elon 88 (photo credit: )
elon 88
(photo credit: )
'We have to stop being so tribalistic," insists NU/NRP Knesset member Benny Elon, "and remember that no one group in this country would have succeeded without the others." Such promoting of societal cohesion might seem out of place, coming from a religious right-winger with a reputation for undermining his political opponents with the purism of an ideologue. But then, Elon is altogether an unusual sort of firebrand - one whose gentle manner and good cheer don't correspond to the "extremist" image that has accompanied the 52-year-old resident of the West Bank town of Beit El throughout his political life. It is a stereotype many would deem well-deserved. After all, Elon began his Knesset career as a member of Moledet - headed by murdered minister Rehavam Ze'evi - a party pegged as racist for its platform. Indeed, the son of retired Supreme Court Justice Menahem Elon and husband of author and pundit Emunah Elon might just as well have tattooed the scarlet letter "T" on his chest for "Transfer," or "O" for "ousted out of mainstream discourse." Neither detractors on the Left nor center-rightists were swayed by Elon's claims of finding a "humanitarian solution" to Israel's Palestinian problem. It did not matter that what he said he had in mind was not the "forced expulsion" of Arabs in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip ("The only people expelled here have been Jews," he wryly points out), but rather a "voluntary population exchange," enabled by massive financial incentives. Nor has he succeeded in persuading the political echelon or the public that Israel should cultivate Jordan's Hashemite Kingdom as the sovereign entity responsible for the Palestinians - rather than backing independent statehood. These basic elements - together with the elimination of the refugee issue - comprised what came to be known as the Elon Plan. It was an initiative geared toward counteracting other peace proposals on the table, including the road map, which Elon opposed as strongly as he did the Oslo Accords before it, and the disengagement plan that followed. Elon's open opposition to disengagement didn't go over big with former boss prime minister Ariel Sharon. While serving as tourism minister in Sharon's government, he was issued warnings about his subversive activities in Washington, which included lobbying against a withdrawal from Gaza. Elon received his walking papers two years ago this month - two months before the evacuation of Gush Katif and northern Samaria. As the thorn threatening to prick Sharon's majority in the cabinet vote on disengagement, Elon (and Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman, with whom Elon's National Union had joined forces) had to be booted out. The rest, it could be said, is history - or, perhaps, history in the making. Which is why Elon - a leading member of the Christian Allies Caucus of the Knesset, and author of God's Covenant with Israel [Balfour Books, 2005] - is rolling up his proverbial sleeves and reviving his peace plan. In an hour-long interview (in Hebrew) at his office in the Knesset, Elon expresses concern about a "lack of idealism" in the country, yet also waxes poetic about the people "who managed to create a prosperous western society in the desert," and harbors hope for the future. In hindsight, what would or should you as a representative of the right-wing bloc that opposed disengagement from Gaza have done differently? Today, I can't see anything that could have prevented that madness. Sharon had a magnetic personality, and the Right was confused. The opposition within the Likud - even among those who did not move over to Kadima, and even among those who actually opposed disengagement - was too little, too late. And when Sharon threw me and Avigdor Lieberman out of the government so that he would have a majority for the withdrawal from Gaza, they remained and continued to play the game. The critical moment was the cabinet meeting on Sunday, June 6, 2005. Sharon wanted to fire me on the Friday before the meeting, because the rule is that 24 hours have to pass [after a minister is fired and before a vote can be taken]. I tried to stall being handed the letter telling me I was fired, so that I could buy time and vote in that meeting. This is why the meeting ended up being postponed until Sunday night. By firing Lieberman and me, Sharon accomplished two things: He made sure he had a majority, and he instilled fear in everybody else. If the Likud ministers had stood up to him during that cabinet meeting, he wouldn't have had a majority, and everything would have turned out differently. But once the cabinet passed the decision to go ahead with disengagement, nothing could stop Sharon. You're talking about political maneuvering within the government. But what about the public? Didn't Sharon succeed in persuading a majority of the voters that disengagement was the right path? Yes, but during the early stages, it wasn't a done deal. We wanted Sharon either to hold elections or conduct a national referendum. The only thing he did was hold a referendum in the Likud - and he lost, but ignored the vote. If he had gone to elections, it's likely he would have won, just as he did when he formed Kadima. But at least we would have been given the sense that this was the will of the public, and therefore there was nothing more we could do. In retrospect, we see that Sharon gained the support of the public, because even after uprooting the settlements [of Gush Katif and northern Samaria], he won the elections. His popularity and power were dominant. Sometimes we witness people making history. Sharon was doing that through his personality. Or leadership? Yes, though in my view it was negative leadership. It's an amazing phenomenon. This was a man who used to be called a murderer by the media at home and abroad. Suddenly he's Mr. Popularity, and even Shimon Peres joins him! Are you implying that what it took for him to transform from a "murderer" to a "leader" in the eyes of the world, the media and the public was to withdraw from territory and uproot Jewish settlements? There's no question about it. The Left is incredibly influential in the media. Nevertheless, I do not underestimate the power of Sharon's personality. He also had stature as one of the founders of the country - from the older generation. Compare that to Olmert's standing. He's trying to accommodate the Left, yet he's the opposite of popular. So it's not enough for someone to lean Left in order to gain support. There is no doubt that Sharon himself played a central role in this disaster of Jews being expelled from their homes for no reason. The situation in Gaza today is exactly as we said it would be: Sderot and Ashkelon are being fired on. This was not a prophecy. It was clear that that's what would happen. I'm afraid that even today, the public hasn't internalized what happened, or at least not as deeply as it should. You are an Orthodox Jew and a rabbi. Are you not able to view the processes the state is going through from a biblical perspective - as opposed to a political one? Couldn't you see everything that has unfolded over the years as part of the story of the Jewish People, rather than one of the Israeli electorate? Absolutely. But I don't think that we can analyze these processes while they are going on. Interpretation requires perspective and distance. While things are happening, you have to try to act according to your beliefs and do what you can. You don't sit with your arms crossed. History is filled with examples of Jews saying, "That's it. We're in the Diaspora. There's no point in struggling." [The Second Temple-period sage] Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakai did that. I believe that God has shown us over the past 100 years that he expects us to take action - not to sit back and analyze his moves. On the contrary. Look at the behavior of the anti-Zionist haredi rabbis in Europe who told their students not to make aliya. Then came the Holocaust, and later the establishment of the state of Israel. In retrospect, we see that it was the secular activists who did the right thing. Those religious Jews who said, "If God wants it, the Messiah will arrive on a donkey, and we'll wait for that time," were wrong. I'm not saying it was only secular Jews who had the right idea. There were also rabbis, such as Rabbi Kook and others, who preceded Herzl - but they were in the minority. Most of the haredi rabbis said, "Do nothing. Be passive. That's what God wants." I think that God wants us to be partners - to understand the general direction and help go there. It's like when we pray. He hears our prayers, but sometimes he says, "I don't want to meet your requests. You asked that I save Gush Katif; I don't want to." Right now, I don't know why. But in a few years, it could be that we'll understand this was something fantastic - that God planned it for some reason that is not immediately apparent. By the same token, it could be that we were simply not strong enough to withstand it. In any case, we must not fail to act. We must combine activism with faith. The way we are supposed to combine the performance of mitzvot and faith? Right. You can't say, "I believe in God, and therefore I don't really need to put on tefillin [phylacteries]; I can do yoga instead." Speaking of substituting yoga for tefillin, do you not blame the secularism of Israeli society for the current problems? Do you think that if Israelis spent more time keeping actual mitzvot, things would be different? It's more complicated than that. What hurts me is that even secular idealism seems to have gotten lost. Much of the establishment of the state can be credited to secular idealists. These were the people who wanted to save the Jewish people through statehood, rather than Judaism. They understood that they shouldn't merely assimilate into other cultures, but rather save their people. They took action for the sake of this ideal. Afterwards, there were all the founders of the Kibbutz Movement and the Second Aliya. Today's tragedy is the lack of people like these. But wasn't that Herzl's dream, after all? To create a normal state with normal people - not some ideological Utopia? Yes, but there are many things Herzl didn't anticipate. He was a great man; he saw the big picture, but he didn't see some of its smaller facets. For example, he didn't believe that Hebrew would be spoken in the Jewish state. He said, "Show me a single Jew who will be able to ask for a train ticket in Hebrew. There is no such person." He thought it would be like Switzerland; cantons in which different languages would be spoken, and with one more dominant one, perhaps German. Well, it didn't turn out that way, and I guarantee you he's not angry about it. Nor did he deal with the issue of Arabs. The romantics of the Zionist movement didn't understand that they weren't coming to an empty land. They didn't anticipate a situation in which, 59 years after its establishment, while Israel was celebrating Independence Day, the Arabs were mourning the Nakba [catastrophe]. Therefore, though I agree that what I ultimately want is normalization, I still recognize that we haven't reached that point yet. We still have a long spiritual-ideological struggle ahead. The winner will be the one who is willing to sacrifice more - the one connected to the land. If the Arabs are so connected to the land that they're even willing to commit suicide for it - and the Jews are just as willing to settle in Switzerland - the Arabs will win. It is clear to me that the more a person understands what Eretz Yisrael is and who the people of Israel are, the more motivated he is to fight for it. By the same token, the willingness of a person who is raised on soap operas and self-fulfillment to commit to the struggle is much smaller that that of his enemy. What is missing, then, is not necessarily a commitment to religion here, but a commitment to the ideal of Zionism and personal responsibility. Also, we have to stop being so tribalistic in this country, and remember that no one group would have succeeded without the others. Still, I don't want to paint too bleak a picture. I'm a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and after the Second Lebanon War, we invited anyone who served in the army and wanted to talk about the war to do so. Many reservists took us up on that. Some were religious, but most of them weren't. Managers of hi-tech companies, for example, who dropped everything to join their units in the North. Some said that they wouldn't have hired the commander of their brigade to be in charge even of a minor operation in their companies. These are men who know what management is, and their criticisms were totally justified. It was one of the most educational experiences I've ever had. Now, these guys are the very definition of normalization - yet they are idealists of the highest order. They wanted to bring things out in the open in order to rectify them. Their main point was that we shouldn't be buying the nonsense that all the problems of the war were the fault of the politicians. The army, too, they said, was at fault. As managers of companies, they understood very well what was wrong with the way the war was handled on the ground. Lately, I have heard much grumbling among members of the Right to the effect that Israelis are so stupid politically - and so ignorant of and apathetic to their roots - that they "don't deserve a state." What you are saying would indicate that you don't agree with that. No, I certainly do not. But it doesn't surprise me. That kind of frustration has been around forever. All you have to do is read the Bible. Even Moses complained to God that he'd had it with the people of Israel. No sooner did they leave Egypt, he said, than they began worshiping the Golden Calf. But even Moses was willing to struggle to rectify this. And look at Herzl. He felt that he was giving his heart and soul to the Jewish people, and most of them thought he was crazy. Leadership not only requires being a good diagnostician; it requires a deep-seated belief that, with all their complexities, the Jews are God's chosen people, and therefore cannot be given up on. Like a teacher confronted with a difficult pupil. A bad teacher kicks him out of the classroom. A good one works with that pupil to make sure that something good comes of him. This is not to say that I don't also feel frustrated by what often appears to be suicidal impulses on the part of the Jews. The whole Oslo process, for example. And, if there are elections, I do fear similar processes ahead. Perhaps this is in the Jewish DNA? Yes [he laughs]. In the Bible, we are referred to as a "stiff-necked people." But we are also a people chosen to do a job, and by hook or by crook, we will have to do it. You know, somebody once defined the meaning of "stiff-necked people" for me. He said that a person with a stiff neck is one who is unable to look to either side - and certainly not turn his head to look back; he can only look straight ahead ["kadima," in Hebrew]. Like the Kadima party [he laughs]. In other words, he doesn't learn from history. Or maybe it's someone who is unable to look heavenward. That, too. On the other hand, if you look at the reservists I mentioned, you'll see that there's more to our people than that. All of Israel's achievements come from the people. Look at our economic boom, for example. Though it is true that part of it is the result of [former finance minister Binyamin] Netanyahu's policies, it is the people who make it happen. We are a people that succeeds in spite of war. A people who managed to create a prosperous western society in the desert. Which is why I am neither despondent, nor of the belief that we should sit around resting on our laurels. What kind of action, then, are you suggesting? What I am suggesting is a different kind of peace plan. Until now, the Right has always stressed what should not be done, rather than what should. You know, "no" to a Palestinian state, "no" to this and "no" to that. It hasn't presented a viable alternative to the Left. The public doesn't buy this. It wants to see a light at the end of the tunnel. And whenever a right-wing prime minister has come to power, the plans on the table have always been to his Left. Is that because the only real right-wing plans are ones that no one in this country would agree to - such as the expulsion of Arabs, or more severe military operations? I don't buy that. It is a leftist stereotype of the Right's positions. Furthermore, [he says, wryly,] the only people expelled here have been Jews. I am reviving and updating the plan I created a few years ago, which is now more relevant than ever. Its main principles are to eliminate the Palestinian refugee camps and to have regional cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, with the latter becoming the state that has functional sovereignty over the Palestinians. You know, UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] is something that only the Palestinians have. The rest of the world has UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]. I met one of the heads of UNRWA, and he said that the mandate of the UNHCR - in Asia or Europe - is to work with governments to solve refugee problems within a time frame of two or three years. UNRWA has no such mandate. Its job is to maintain the refugee camps. My plan includes demanding that UNRWA be shut down and finding a humanitarian solution for the refugees - which means getting them out of camps and enabling them to cease being refugees. With a few billion dollars from the US, Europe and Israel, we could give every family of refugees $100,000-200,000, and release them from being refugees. Surveys indicate that what most of these refugees want is a visa to some country and money with which to turn over a new leaf - just as my father came here as a refugee from Germany and began a new life. As it happens, there were more Jewish refugees from Arab countries here than Arab refugees: We had 860,000 Jews whom we absorbed in the country, and 670,000 Arabs. The 670,000 became 3-4 million in refugee camps - four generations. There is no other place in the world where there are refugees unto the fourth generation. A fourth year, maybe, at most. The Jews from Arab countries, on the other hand, didn't remain refugees. They became landlords and began new lives. The Palestinian refugees weren't able to do this, because their plight was exploited by their leaders. You talk of regional cooperation with Jordan and Egypt. Aren't you forgetting that neither is a democracy, and neither has come to terms with the state of Israel? I am taking that into account. But I think we shouldn't exaggerate the democracy issue. I don't accept Natan Sharansky's view of democratization in the Middle East, in spite of the incredible respect and admiration I have for him. Why did democratization work for Japan after World War II? Japan had the MacArthur plan, the way Europe had the Marshall plan. But I'm not sure the character of the Far East is similar to that of the Arabs. With all its problems, Japan is an economic superpower. In contrast, with all its petrodollars, the Arab world remains backward. The example I prefer is Turkey, which sacrificed some of its democracy to prevent radical Islam from winning. Turkey would lose its government if it adhered to a Sharansky model of democracy. It would become part of the Muslim Levant. I don't want to see Jordan adhering to that kind of democracy, either. I want to strengthen the king, and to create an alliance of Turkey, Jordan, Israel and possibly Egypt - and not wait for democracy. We shouldn't treat democracy as a religion; it is an important tool which, when not used properly, turns out badly. When the Saudis talk about a Palestinian state, we have to reject that and look to cooperation with Jordan. Today, King Abdullah is willing to consider giving auspices to the Arabs in Judea and Samaria. Let's not forget that, until 1988, they had Jordanian passports. And if their Jordanian passports are returned to them, they will have a good economic future. Forty years have passed since the Six Day War. Instead of thanking God for having been rescued from the "borders of Auschwitz," as Abba Eban referred to them; instead of thanking God that the war gave us back our holiest places; and instead of negotiating with Jordan about the Arabs in Judea and Samaria to enable them to be respectable Jordanian citizens, we faltered and argued with each other. If we had done all those things, we would have been living in peace a long time ago. There would have been the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan and Palestine. Everybody thinks that when you say "Jordan is Palestine," you're talking about toppling the king. On the contrary, it is in the West's interest to upgrade him. Help him financially. Give him military confidence, so that he won't have to be afraid to be the king of the Palestinians. A wealthy American businessman told me that if he had a lawyer who consistently gave him bad advice about his deals, he'd stop listening - especially if the lawyer had been repeating the mistake for 15 years. Well, for 15 years, Shimon Peres and others have been doing just that. They are good people, but their efforts have failed again and again. It's time for our initiative to be given a try - with the support of the US Congress and the international Christian community. Your work with the Christians is based on shared values to counteract radical Islam. How does this jibe with what you're saying here - which sounds more like some form of regional realpolitik than a moral imperative? What I'm doing in the Christian Allies Caucus is stressing the biblical values that are the key to having faith and modernity simultaneously. Jews have always integrated into their societies by adopting cultures, while remaining believing Jews. Through the grassroots efforts of the hundreds of millions of Christians worldwide, people who were raised on the Hebrew Bible and Jerusalem and on the "God of Israel," we hope to cause the Islamists to realize that they are contending not only with the Jews, but with billions of other people. If we all work together towards this and the points in my plan, I believe that within 10 years, we'll have security and peace.