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Accidental Peacemakers : HOW TWO HOLY MEN PUSHED ISRAEL AND THE PLO TO MAKE A DEAL

September 05, 1993|Yossi Melman | Yossi Melman is an Israeli journalist whose next book, "Friends in Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israeli Alliance" will be published by Hyperion next year

ANN ARBOR, MICH. — When the Middle East sea is filled with new radicals--fundamentalists and holy warriors--old enemies and extremists find them selves drifting side-by-side in shallow water. This is what has happened to Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. These bitter enemies are about to make history: signing a peace treaty that will end 46 years of war and violence.

True, both sides have only slightly modified their image of the other. Most Israelis still see Arafat as a "terrorist with blood on his hands," as the Hebrew saying goes, and a majority of Palestinians still perceive Israel as a "brutal occupying force." But the changing Middle East landscape is forcing them to accept the idea that they must soon make even greater concessions for peace.

Though the two main actors in the drama are the 70-year-old Rabin and the 64-year-old Arafat, there are two lesser-known dramatis personae who helped make the unthinkable possible. They are a rabbi and a sheik.

The rabbi is Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Shas Party, which he founded 10 years ago. Claiming Israel's Oriental Jews were discriminated against, Yosef, a former chief rabbi, rebelled against the Ashkenazi-dominated religious parties and formed his own.

Israel's two major parties immediately recognized Shas' political potential and started a courtship. Both left-wing Labor and right-wing Likud were not deterred by Shas' ideology--which has called for the introduction of halacha (religious laws) that would turn Israel into a Jewish theocratic state.

At first, Shas preferred Likud and joined the coalition government of Yitzhak Shamir--which reciprocated by pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of state money into the party. Most of the money was used to build an impressive education and welfare system, but some went to illegally finance the party machinery and line the pockets of its leaders. Under Shamir, the police and the Ministry of Justice opened an investigation.

After the 1992 elections, Shas deserted Likud and joined the Labor coalition. By changing its allegiance, Shas enabled Rabin to form a ruling coalition. Rabin rewarded Shas with more financial incentives and even intervened to slow down the investigations against its corrupt leadership. This alliance enabled Rabin to stay in power, despite his party's narrow majority in the Knesset. Thus, without Yosef and Shas support, there would be no peace prospects.

But the move toward peace would also not have happened without Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Like Yosef, he advocates the establishment of a theocracy. But unlike his Jewish counterpart, who supports peace and shows no interest in strident nationalism, Yassin rails against peace and Israel. He was imprisoned by the Israeli authorities for 15 years, on charges of inciting terrorism and violence. He is the spiritual leader of Hamas, which has emerged in the last five years as the bitter enemy of not only Israel but also of Arafat and his PLO.

Hamas' ideological, religious and political beliefs, indeed, its very identity, are rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood movement, founded in Egypt in the '30s. Its message of Muslim solidarity and enmity toward the West and Western culture spread to the Gaza region, which, until the 1967 War, belonged to Egypt.

That war--which resulted in the annexation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights and 1.4 million Palestinians--posed a new challenge to Israel. Most Palestinians supported the PLO's secular politics and identified with its goals. But as the PLO began organizing terrorist activities, Israeli governments were eager to counter Arafat's influence in the occupied territories. They encouraged the formation of groups that would serve as alternatives to the PLO.

One "alternative" creation was a group of Muslim fundamentalists, refugees of the Muslim Brotherhood. While Israel's military and security forces restricted the movement of any Palestinians who maintained ties with the PLO, the Islamic movement was cautiously supported by Israeli governments in the '70s and early '80s. Members were allowed to go on fund-raising missions to rich Gulf states and to import the money back to the West Bank and Gaza.

The relative affluence of the Muslims, combined with their message about a return to religious roots, appealed to young Palestinians. Thousands turned up for Friday prayers and joined Koran study classes. Families made use of the Muslim medical clinics and community centers.

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