Saturday, December 22, 2007

Middle Israel: In praise of Yossi Beilin

The following article appeared in The Jerusalem Post. Asa-El is right about the importance of dreamers, but when dreamers begin deluding themselves, they do more harm then good.

By Amotz Asa-El, December 20, 2007

First, a word to that portion of our offshore talk-backers for whom this headline constitutes blasphemy: Better one naïve Jewish humanist in Zion than a thousand fascist Jews around the Diaspora's fleshpots.

Beyond this, Yossi Beilin, who this week announced his resignation as leader of Meretz, does not need this relativist appreciation to win a place of honor in a public arena where he loomed so much taller than the countless cynics, cronies, gofers, ignoramuses, briefcase carriers, second-generation hacks, verbose generals and retired secret agents who have come to crowd it in recent decades.

Beilin's has been a tragic career. Launched at 26 the morning after the Yom Kippur War, it is drawing to a close on the eve of his 60th birthday, with the peace for which he labored all these decades as elusive as the electoral victories he so quixotically tried to hand his political baptizer, Shimon Peres. Beilin may still enter the next Knesset, maybe even join this or that cabinet - perhaps once again through Labor - but having failed once to win Labor's leadership, then to just win a seat on its Knesset list and now to rally behind him a party as compact as Meretz, he is likely to humbly concede that he just was not born to lead.

It's nothing to be ashamed of; most people were not born to lead, and many born leaders led well, but to catastrophes. Non-leaders, at the same time, from Harry Truman to Levi Eshkol, often proved remarkable once at the helm. The tragedy about Beilin has been that in a public ecosystem such as Israel's, where power is so raw, worshiped and coveted, he had little appreciation for it. For him power really was but a means, certainly no end in itself. That is why the first thing he did as minister of economics in 1996 was to announce that utterly redundant agency's dismantlement. Most other Israeli politicians in his position would have set out to bolster it with yet more unaffordable budgets, under-par staffers and busywork tasks.

Beilin was not only impartial, he was also insightful, courageous and original on a broad range of issues that were not related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and therefore remained little known abroad.

Though a junior official at the time, he stood up to then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin, insisting that Israel backtrack from its military relationship with South Africa's apartheid regime, if not because of its barbarity then because of its mortality. Rabin - ever gruff, arrogant and ignorant - laughed Beilin off, memorably dismissing him as "Peres's poodle" to an entire country's giggling, but the fact is that two years on the South African regime to which Rabin was so attached was deep in history's dustbin.

Unlike most other Israeli leaders, Beilin actually thought about the issues regardless of what a particular motion or policy had in store for him personally. That is how he ended up conceiving and budgeting birthright israel, the universally admired program that brings here annually thousands of Jewish youngsters who might otherwise have never seen the Jewish state. That is also why as deputy finance minister in 1989 he defied his party's dogma and opposed calls for fiscal expansion and monetary relaxation.

Similarly, and unlike his frequently anti-religious colleagues, Beilin - who as a young adult toyed for several years with Jewish observance - believed that the Left must be prepared to make great concessions to ultra-Orthodoxy, in order to turn it into a strategic partner in a historic land-for-peace deal.

For all these reasons it is a great shame to see Yossi Beilin floored. Yet the biggest shame is to see the colossal failure of his career's main gamble, which was to weld it to the gospel of peace.

BY HIS own account, Yossi Beilin was traumatized by the Yom Kippur War, which caught him in the Sinai, where he witnessed its carnage. That is where his views concerning nationalism's futility and the conflict's resolution emerged. Eventually, he played first violin in the era that followed the war and was dominated by the territorial debate between the Land-for-Peace and Greater Israel camps.

Paradoxically, Beilin's tragedy has been exactly the same as his historic archrivals': His formula was put to the test - and failed. And just like Uri Ariel, Zvi Hendel and Hanan Porat can't bring themselves to admit that settling in Gaza and Nablus was a colossal mistake, Beilin failed to concede that Oslo had failed. Moreover, he still contends that peace is not only obtainable - mechanically and quickly - but that its pursuit supersedes all other agendas, as it will constitute a big bang that will reinvent all aspects of our life here, from economics to culture.

Curiously enough, whether in its political aloofness, historic impatience or psychological quest for cataclysm, this outlook is the perfect inversion of Gush Emunim's dogma. And now, the territorial era that gave rise to political careers like Beilin's on the Left and Porat's on the Right has ended. Ours is the era of the fence, which monumentalizes the failures of both Land-for-Peace and Greater Israel; and Beilin, who bet his future on the eruption of a big peace, has only himself to blame for having shaped his career so that it left him no place in this era of sobriety, where there is so much else to do regardless of the conflict.

The fault is his, but the loss is ours. Israeli leadership sure could use a few more people who probe issues and seek change rather than use public office to embezzle, patronize and womanize.

It certainly can use more dreamers. For my part, whenever encountering the vehemence with which the very mention of Beilin's name is greeted by his many detractors, I am reminded of our forefathers dumping their own Yossi into a pit - just because they couldn't stomach his dreams.

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